The great debate over the trees in the I-26 median apparently is over, with 17 miles of trees preserved and additional provisions for safety approved along the length of the wooded roadway. Hurrah for that.
But the opposition of many on the Berkeley-Charleston Dorchester-Council of Governments says that the issue will return when plans to further widen I-26 are advanced.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, for example, opposed the Monday compromise, saying that the highway will eventually be widened anyway and that the remaining trees will be removed when that occurs. He described the trees as "junk that grew up in the middle of the interstate."
As if to underscore the mayor's comment is the fact that five miles of interstate highway between Summerville and Jedburg are slated to be widened, and the trees in that portion of the median will be removed to accommodate the paving.
So that will leave about 25 miles of wooded median, and the plan adopted by COG will see seven of those miles clear-cut to lessen hazards to motorists. The large majority of fatalities have occurred along those seven miles of roadway.
Additionally, the COG agreed to install cable barriers along the length of the highway between Jedburg Road and I-95. It's reasonable to question why barriers on both sides of the median wouldn't be adequate for safety by themselves, alleviating the need to remove any median trees.
Nevertheless, tree advocates should count themselves fortunate, given the closeness of the vote on the compromise plan - 14-13. Clearly, many elected officials are not ready to fully embrace the importance of scenic highways. Consequently, the issue will continue to come up as plans to further widen I-26 inevitably advance.
The lack of funds for additional widening, at this point, says the reprieve should be for an extended period of time.
But absent a commitment to provide for scenic highways, even at additional expense, and the battle for the I-26 trees will continue to be fought intermittently in the years to come.
The best argument for a stronger policy will be the 17 miles of trees that will continue to provide a break in the monotony of concrete and asphalt.
And give credit to those on COG who heard the voice of the public as it clearly opposed the Department of Transportation's plans to remove all possible median trees.
The I-26 debate points to the need for a heightened recognition of the value of scenic roadways.
Maintaining scenic corridors in coastal South Carolina is important to the tourist economy and to local motorists who travel on those roads. Without a strong policy to protect them, tree-lined highways like this portion of I-26 will continue to be in jeopardy.
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