Seven miles of median trees on the deadliest stretch of Interstate 26 in the Lowcountry will be removed under a compromise approved Monday by the Berkeley-Dorchester-Charleston Council of Governments.
The split vote was as divided and the discussion as heated as the public reaction over the controversy.
The plan would leave 17 miles of trees untouched, with a cable barrier installed along the highway between Jedburg Road and Interstate 95.
Trees already are slated to be cleared along five miles between the Jedburg and Summerville exits when the highway is widened to three lanes and are not included in the compromise.
In the seven cleared miles of interstate, a cable guardrail will be placed along the middle of the median.
The original plan was to cut down trees in the median for 23 miles of the 30-mile stretch of interstate from the Summerville exit to I-95. Seven miles of median with wetlands and trees would not be affected, the state Department of Transportation said.
According to a DOT study, 57 of 68 fatal or severe-injury wrecks that happened from 2007 to 2011 occurred from hitting trees along the roughly seven miles to be cleared. Most were along about four miles between Cypress Swamp and S.C. Highway 27. Trees will be removed from that area, and from at least two other smaller stretches.
The compromise was put together by S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, and Jim Rozier, a state transportation commissioner.
"This is a common-sense approach," Grooms told the COG board.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey opposed the amendment to the original plan as not accomplishing anything with the remaining 24 miles from Jedburg Road to I-95 that is planned to be widened eventually, requiring all the trees to be removed. He said if a single life is lost, it's not worth waiting to cut what he called "junk that grew up in the middle of the interstate."
Corrected by Berkeley County Councilman Tim Callanan that installing the barriers prevents cars from going into the trees, Summey asked if the barriers would bounce cars back into the highway. "So we're going to save the trees and throw cars back on the road," Summey said.
A major port expansion is among the industrial development in North Charleston expected to add commercial traffic to the interstate in the coming years.
The 14-13 vote of approval followed a 17-14 vote to approve adding the amendment. Votes were taken by a show of hands with no individual recorded votes; some who voted on the amendment did not vote on the final measure.
"The majority of folks are opposed to cutting the trees, but the COG knows what is best for us," said Henry Siegling, of Mount Pleasant, when he read about the vote. "The most irritating part is that the (COG board members) did not have the intestinal fortitude to stand up and be counted."
A 2011 study suggested that clearing the median and installing a single line of cables would cost about $5 million; installing cables in both directions would cost $10 million. Asked what the compromise would mean for the costs, Tony Sheppard, DOT director of traffic engineering, said, "We don't really know at this point. It could be as much (as $10 million) or more."
The DOT plans to pay for the project through a federal safety grant. No grant amount has been determined, and Sheppard said the grant money wouldn't necessarily be restricted to tree removal.
About 32,500 vehicles travel the affected stretch of I-26 daily. Half of the wrecks from 2007 to 2011 involved cars running off the road. The road includes stretches with abrupt drops to closely lined trees. Fatalities happened at a rate three to four times higher in the median, officials said.
Prentiss Findlay contributed to this report. Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.
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