DOT tree-cutting plan for I-26 gets hearing today

A controversial plan to cut down most of the trees in the Interstate 26 median between Summerville and Interstate 95 will get a public hearing today.

The 30-mile-long, $5 million, federally-funded project in Berkeley and Dorchester counties could begin this year. It is expected to take 18 months to complete.

Project supporters say it will reduce injuries and fatalities on the highway. Opponents say it will create a scarred landscape and poor first impression for visitors.

The state Department of Transportation wants to clear-cut trees and install cable guardrail down the middle of the median for 23 miles along I-26. For seven miles of the project, guardrail will be placed on both sides of the median in wetland areas where trees will not be cut.

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.

Half of those wrecks involved cars running off the road. Fatalities happened at a rate three-to-four times higher in the median, the DOT says.

In areas where the trees are removed, the zone for motorists to 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.

The DOT needs the approval of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments before the project can proceed. A committee appointed by the COG to study the issue recommended in a 4-2 vote that the DOT proceed with the option that is the subject of the public hearing. The COG board will consider whether to accept or reject the recommendation. When the issue will be considered by the COG board has not been announced.

COG is weighing in on the project 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.

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