While the final decision on the I-26 trees is still to come, a Department of Transportation spokesman tells us that the agency plans to “take down what we have to and keep what we can.”
The DOT may not yet be on the same page as the community on this controversial project, but that certainly sounds better than the plan to clear-cut much of the highway median from Summerville to I-95.
It will be up to the local Council of Governments to make sure that the DOT actually commits to a project that retains trees to the extent possible, and revises its safety improvements accordingly. DOT officials have cited the accident toll on that 30-mile stretch of interstate as reason to clear-cut much of the median and install a single cable barrier in the center.
That ill-advised proposal, announced in February, has met with broad public opposition, including elected officials ranging from County Council to Congress. Simply put, residents and their elected representatives want to save this scenic portion of the interstate.
Indeed, objections to the clear-cutting proposal — and the DOT’s unwillingness to consider alternatives — encouraged the General Assembly to pass Sen. Larry Grooms’ proviso requiring the DOT to get approval of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments.
That mandate gives the COG an opportunity to support beautification and improve public safety. Local officials should make the most of it.
Dorchester County Councilman Larry Hargett says the local consensus at this point is to allow the removal of a comparatively modest number of trees to accommodate cable barriers along both sides of the median, as needed.
Mr. Hargett says COG’s goal is to preserve grand trees, as well as understory vegetation that promotes highway safety by diminishing headlight glare at night. As many as 80 percent of the trees could be saved, he says.
At Monday’s meeting, 1st District Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said that the trees need to be preserved for their scenic, and economic, value. “How we look and feel as a region is important to how we sell the region.”
It’s a point of view that the DOT should recognize. And in doing so, it should make the necessary accommodations for tree preservation, while sustaining the extra expense for parallel roadside barriers.
The meeting was the first joint DOT-COG discussion on the project. As options are considered, the COG should make sure the DOT doesn’t compromise this scenic gateway to the Lowcountry.
Monday’s presentation by traffic engineer Tony Sheppard should caution against undue optimism. He maintained that safety concerns justify DOT’s plans to ax the trees. He also noted that their removal would prepare the median for future widening.
In the view of Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey, it’s up to COG to ensure that I-26 improvements will be first and foremost, a “beautification project.”
“Bring in an arborist, not a road engineer,” he said. That’s an idea the COG should support.