SUMMERVILLE - The trees in the Interstate 26 median between Summerville and Interstate 95 should not be cut down because they are not the reason for the high number of accidents on that stretch of highway.
That was the overwhelming sentiment expressed Tuesday night at a public hearing on the state Department of Transportation's plan to fell the mix of mostly pines and some hardwoods. The hearing was held at Summerville High School.
Speakers opposed to the DOT plan said a better solution would be to focus on changing the behavior of drivers who speed, text, drink and fall asleep behind the wheel.
More than 150 people attended the hearing.
"I've never seen a tree in my 73 years jump out and grab a car," said Herman Bradley.
Nancy Corbin said a study of the reasons drivers crash is a better idea than chopping down the trees. Richard Rosebrock noted that I-26 is the gateway to Charleston. Cutting the pines will drastically alter the first impression of the area.
"We love the trees," he said.
Jaquelin Simmons said driving on I-26 is "terrifying" because of speeders and tailgating. What's needed is more of a law enforcement presence and a lower speed limit, she said.
Shirley McGreal asked who will get the money if the trees that are clear-cut in the median are sold. She noted they are home to wildlife.
Tony Sheppard, DOT director of traffic engineering, said the department plans to clear-cut the median for 23 miles and install a cable guardrail down the middle. For another 7 miles of the project where wetlands are located, guardrails will be installed on both sides of the median and the trees will be left in place.
Sheppard said the leading causes of accidents on I-26 are distracted driving, falling asleep, driving while drunk and speeding.
The average daily traffic on the affected stretch of I-26 is 33,433 vehicles. From January 2007 to November 2011, there were 1,934 crashes, 44 fatalities and 709 injuries.
The number of fatalities is 20 percent higher than the state average for a highway of this type, he said.
In nearly half of the crashes, the vehicle ran off the road, which is double the state average for interstate highways. Fatalities happened at a rate three to four times higher in the median than when a vehicle ran off the right shoulder of a road, 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 said.
Other more expensive options were examined such as installing high-tension cable on both sides of the median and leaving the trees in place. That, however, would require shutting a lane to do costly annual repairs, he said.
Not everyone in the audience was opposed to the DOT plan. When supporters were asked to stand, about a half-dozen people rose from their seats.
Among them was Doug Yaxis, who said accident statistics point to the need for the project.
"You don't have a chance of getting your foot on the brake before you are into the trees," he said.
In an interview, state DOT Commission Vice-Chairman Jim Rozier said he favored clearing 5 to 7 miles of the trees in areas with the highest number of fatalities.
"I'm not in favor of just cutting trees willy-nilly," he said.
COG Executive Director Ron Mitchum said the issue is tentatively scheduled to be on the agenda for the Feb. 24 COG board meeting.
Last month, a COG committee appointed to study the issue voted 4-2 to recommend approval of the $5 million federally funded project.
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.
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.