The state Department of Transportation hasn't been able to sell local residents on its plan to virtually clear-cut the I-26 median from Summerville to I-95. But the plan, or something very close to it, got the endorsement of a local Council of Governments committee on Wednesday. There's got to be a better way.
No question, the trees present a hazard, particularly to motorists who are speeding, using their cell phones or are otherwise distracted or impaired. We've had plenty of letters to the editor attesting to how commonplace those hazardous activities are along that rural stretch of I-26.
But removing most of the trees is an extreme solution that would eliminate the scenic aspects of a roadway that serves as the primary entrance to Charleston and the Lowcountry. And it would eliminate the safety contribution of the trees - reducing glare during the day as well as blocking oncoming headlights at night.
The DOT's response to accidents and fatalities on the road would be to remove trees in the median and install a safety cable barrier.
The plan was so controversial with the motoring public in the tri-county area that the Legislature gave planning authority on the project to the local Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. An ad hoc COG committee, by a 4-2 margin, recommended cutting 23 miles of trees along the 29-mile stretch of highway.
Dorchester County Councilman Larry Hargett, who voted against the plan, says the DOT should focus on the six or seven miles where most accidents occur. That would require some tree removal and the use of guardrails.
"I do think there are some areas where the highway design is a problem," Mr. Hargett said. "We know where those places are."
Rep. Edward Southard, R-Moncks Corner, described the clear-cutting plan as "a knee-jerk reaction," adding, "I haven't seen yet where a tree jumped out of the median and hit somebody."
Rep. Southard says the problem is primarily a lack of traffic enforcement related to speeding, drinking and texting.
But North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said public safety requires the trees' removal, adding that the interstate will eventually be widened and the trees removed then.
Tree removal for an interstate-widening project should be a decision for another day, and not figure into the current planning process. Adding lanes in the median might be the cheapest way to widen the interstate, but who wants an unbroken asphalt strip divided by a concrete barrier, running to and from Charleston?
Given the public interest in this project, it's disappointing that more members of the COG committee weren't present at decision time. Only seven members of the 13-member ad hoc panel showed up, of whom six voted. Mayor Summey, local highway Commissioner Jim Rozier, Summerville Mayor Bill Collins and Rep. Bill Crosby, R-North Charleston, supported the tree removal plan.
The DOT already has taken steps to improve conditions on the portion of I-26 in question with repaving and restriping. It should be required to take other safety measures short of clear-cutting the interstate median. Solutions could include the selective installation of guardrails.
The full Council of Governments, which takes up the proposal in January, should make the necessary adjustments to preserve the scenic aspects of I-26.
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