A panel of regional planners has approved the state highway department's proposal to cut most of the trees in the Interstate 26 median from Summerville to I-95.
On Wednesday, a committee of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments voted 4-2 to recommend approval of the $5 million project that critics said is too much like the state Department of Transportation's original plan to clear-cut all the trees.
The new proposal is to cut down trees in the median for 23 miles of the 30-mile stretch of interstate. Seven miles of median with wetlands and trees would not be affected, said Tony Sheppard, DOT director of traffic engineering.
In the cleared areas of interstate, cable guardrail will be placed down the middle of the median. In the wetlands areas where trees will stay, guardrail will be placed on both sides of the median, Sheppard said.
The seven miles of wetland areas in the median where trees will remain are scattered along the length of the project, he said.
A public hearing on the proposal will be held in January before the measure goes to the full COG board for consideration; a favorable vote is necessary for the project to proceed. The DOT would like to be able to move forward with the 18-month federally funded effort this year, Sheppard said.
The DOT presented four options to the COG committee - leave all the trees, remove trees in the highest-fatality areas, cut down all the trees and the plan recommended for approval on Wednesday, officials said.
State Rep. Edward Southard, R-Moncks Corner, voted against the proposal to take out most of the trees because he does not buy the DOT argument that the work is necessary to improve safety. Southard said he thinks fatalities on the stretch of I-26 are a traffic-enforcement issue related to speeding, drinking and texting.
"I think it's a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "I haven't seen yet where a tree jumped out of the median and hit somebody."
According to highway data, interstates are safer than some state highways, he said, citing accident data for S.C. Highways 402 and 41, which he said are more dangerous than I-26.
"Basically, they're going to clear-cut everything," said Dorchester County Councilman Larry Hargett, who cast the other vote against the DOT proposal Wednesday.
Hargett said he favored cutting trees in the high-fatality areas, which would have meant about 40 percent of the trees would be removed.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who voted for the DOT proposal, said the number of accidents and deaths on the stretch of I-26 is far greater than on interstates in other parts of the state.
Accidents will happen regardless of the presence of trees in the median, he said, but it makes sense to take measures that will make the road safer.
Eventually that stretch of interstate will be widened into the median and the trees will need to be removed anyway, Summey said. The trees are not grand oaks but instead scrub pines and undergrowth, he said.
"My main concern is the potential of losing life," he said.
Summerville Mayor Bill Collins, who also voted for the DOT plan, noted that the trees were not planted but have grown up wild in the interstate median. He agreed that they are scrub pines.
"I see it as a safety issue as well," he said.
Collins said the affected area of the interstate has a 20 percent higher mortality rate than the rest of the highway, and that is tied to the trees, the narrow median shoulder and the slope of roadside embankments. The I-26 project will address all those issues.
The fate of the trees has been a hot-button issue that last summer drew a round of critics who protested the plan presented by the DOT to clear-cut all the trees.
In July, the trees got a reprieve after regional leaders serving on the COG agreed to consider other options.
At that time, Hargett, then COG chairman, formed the ad hoc committee that met with representatives from the DOT to analyze the issue.
COG is weighing in on the controversial plan because a state budget proviso gave it the right to veto the DOT's plan. 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.
About 32,500 vehicles travel the affected stretch of I-26 daily. Between 2007 and 2011, 44 people were killed and 709 were injured in 1,934 crashes there.
"It's about reducing the fatalities in that section," Sheppard said.
Half the wrecks involved cars running off the road. Fatalities happened at a rate three-to-four times higher in the median, he said.
When the trees are cut down, the zone where drivers can recover from running off the road will grow from 25 feet wide to 46 feet wide on both sides of the interstate median, the DOT has said.