If you go

I-26 tree-cutting plan meeting

10 a.m. Dec. 11

Berkeley, Charleston Dorchester Council of Governments

1362 McMillan Avenue, Suite 100, North Charleston

Greg Elmore survived a car bomb blast in Iraq that killed 47 people. He was left with broken ribs, damaged ear drums and 68 stitches.

“It was horrible,” he said.

He thought that would be the worst experience of his life. But it wasn’t. Five years later, he lost a child in a wreck on Interstate 26.

“You re-live it every day,” Elmore said.

The accident claimed the life of his second son, Taylor, 17, who was driving from the family home in Florence to Charleston in a Chrysler Sebring that slammed into a tree in the median a few miles from the Ridgeville exit.

Elmore wondered if the condition of the road was a factor. At the wreck location, mile marker 183, there was no shoulder. The roadside sloped downward into trees. He theorized that Taylor drifted momentarily off the pavement and could not regain control of the car.

Because of his concerns, Elmore welcomed news in February that the state Department of Transportation planned to remove the trees in the I-26 median between Summerville and Interstate 95.

Now he worries that the DOT tree-clearing plan will wither away at the Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester Council of Governments where it was referred for further consideration.

“I just don’t see the sense of urgency around this issue. It’s really ticked me off,” he said.

As the COG considers the controversial DOT plan, it is balancing safety concerns against worries that median clear-cutting will leave a huge, ugly scar on the landscape.

COG Executive Director Ron Mitchum said an ad hoc committee will work for a compromise solution acceptable to the DOT, the COG board and those troubled by the large-scale loss of trees.

The COG committee asked the DOT for more detailed, mile-by-mile data on median traffic deaths. A plan could develop to remove trees in areas with the most fatalities while allowing trees to remain elsewhere, Mitchum said.

A meeting is planned December 11 between the COG committee and DOT staff to review the issues, Mitchum said.

COG is weighing in on the controversial $5 million plan because a state budget proviso gave the agency the right to veto the DOT’s plan.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said he got involved in the effort to require more review of the DOT’s plans because he had trouble getting his questions about the project answered.

“It makes it more difficult for the DOT to cut any trees by in essence creating a permit,” Grooms said.

However, the budget proviso expires in June, he said.

Grooms said it is not necessary to fell trees in the median to make I-26 safer. Cable guardrails can be installed on both sides of the median rather than down the middle, he said.

“We like our trees. Design it a little bit different,” he said.

The DOT had no comment other than to confirm that Tony Sheppard, DOT director of traffic engineering, will meet with COG officials. The agency did not respond to questions about whether it is drafting an alternative proposal that would limit tree removal to areas with the highest fatalities.

I-26 from Summerville to I-95 has an annual average daily traffic count of 32,433 vehicles. The speed limit is 70 mph. From 2007 through 2011, 1,934 crashes resulting in 44 fatalities and 709 injuries occurred in that stretch of interstate. Half of the crashes were run-off-the-road accidents, but whether the vehicles went into the median is not been specified by the DOT.

In August of 2009, Taylor died in an accident on a straight, tree-lined section of I-26 that has a fatality rate three-to-four times higher than other stretches, according to a 2010 analysis by The Post and Courier.

The “death zone” near Ridgeville has no cable barriers to keep motorists from hitting trees or going into the steep ditches that line many parts of the highway.

From time-to-time, Elmore returns to where his son died to place flowers in his memory. Taylor was an honor roll student at West Florence High School with plans to attend the College of Charleston.

His mother Belinda was heartbroken when he died. Her grief left her unable to continue as a special education teacher. “She’s no better off today. I can function. She’s still struggling,” Elmore said.

Elmore is human resources director for Harbor Freight Tools. When he goes home after work, he checks The Post and Courier website for I-26 fatalities in the Lowcountry.

He knows a variety of things cause highway deaths. Behaviors such as speeding, drinking and talking or texting on a cell phone are a few. But he thinks that the I-26 median in places where there are thick stands of trees next to steep roadside embankments is an important factor.

“I don’t know the solution but what I do know is there are a lot of people losing their lives. Let’s get some action to save some lives,” he said.