The trees along a 30-mile stretch of Interstate 26 got a reprieve Monday after regional leaders agreed to consider options besides clear-cutting them.
If you go
What: A public hearing on the plan to remove the trees from a 30-mile stretch of I-26 in Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
When: 5-7 p.m., Aug. 1.
Where: Summerville High School, 1101 Boone Hill Road.
Larry Hargett, chairman of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments’ board, said he plans to form an ad-hoc committee that will meet with representatives from the S.C. Department of Transportation to explore options besides removing the trees from the I-26 median between Interstate 95 and Summerville.
The Post and Courier has dubbed that stretch of I-26 “the death zone” because of the high number of fatal accidents that have occurred there.
There has been a sustained public outcry to save the trees since the DOT proposed the plan to clear them as a way to make that stretch of road safer. And regional leaders, including U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford and former U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel, chimed in at the council’s Monday meeting.
The group was weighing in on the controversial plan because a recently approved state budget proviso gave it the right to veto the DOT’s plan to clear-cut the median.
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, has said he worked to get extra review of the DOT’s plans inserted into the state budget after he had trouble getting his questions answered.
The DOT is asking citizens to trade beauty for safety, Grooms said Monday. “I reject the all-or-nothing proposal.”
Charleston County Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey said perhaps it’s possible to remove only some of the trees and vegetation in the median. That could make the road safer while maintaining green space.
He also suggested that the DOT conduct a “tree survey,” to provide regional leaders more detailed information about what’s growing in the median.
Sanford said keeping the trees alive along the “gateway to Charleston” is an economic-development issue. “How we look and feel as a region is important to how we sell the region,” the former governor said.
He also said other areas are successfully balancing roads and green space, so there is no reason why it can’t be done here. There are several green parkways around the Washington, D.C. area where traffic rates are higher and trees are closer to the road than they are on I-26, he said.
Keeping the natural, green look on the road where many tourists enter the Charleston area is important, he said, because it “maintains the goose that’s laying the golden egg.”
The DOT’s $5 million plan would remove the trees, then install cable guardrails in the center of the median after they were gone.
Ravenel, who also is a former state legislator, said the DOT’s plan “would look like the access road to Buchenwald.”
One of the reasons there are accidents, injuries and fatalities on I-26 is because people drive too fast, he said. “You don’t have to drive like a bat outta’ hell.”
As a member of the state legislature in the 1980s, Ravenel said, he promoted legislation, which eventually passed, to allow trees to grow along interstate highways. The legislation limited mowing to 30 feet from the pavement along interstate highways. The state’s highways went from weeds to saplings to the beautiful trees we have now, Ravenel said.
Tony Sheppard, director of traffic engineering for the DOT, cited safety concerns to justify the department’s plan to remove the trees.
About 32,500 vehicles travel the stretch each day, and between 2007 and 2011, 44 people were killed and 709 were injured in 1,934 crashes there. Half of the wrecks involved cars running off the road.
Ravenel said the stretch would look barren without the trees. “Everyone I know except my old friends at the DOT like the trees.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.