Scenic Highway 61 (copy) (copy)

Commuters drive along scenic S.C. Highway 61. Brad Nettles/Staff

The state Department of Transportation shouldn’t be surprised about all this flak over its plans to “improve” S.C. Highway 61.

That stretch of two-lane is the gateway to our plantations, a bona fide National Scenic Byway and perhaps the most historic road in South Carolina. And they want to take chainsaws to the live oaks that provide its gorgeous canopy.

Forgive us if we’re a tad sensitive about our trees, but we’ve been down this road before.

For years, we’ve watched utilities butcher streetscapes from Sullivan’s Island to Savannah Highway, often leaving trees gnarled and mangled. The idea of Highway 61 suffering a similar fate is just too much.

Of course, the DOT isn’t completely to blame here. Those folks are just trying to make the road safer. And it wouldn’t be so dangerous if our population hadn’t grown faster than our infrastructure.

Or if cities and counties had forced developers to do more for traffic mitigation before throwing up suburbs the size of Summerville on nearly every square acre of scrub land.

Or if the Legislature hadn’t foolishly underfunded the DOT and neglected needed road projects for decades.

But that’s water under the bridge … and through houses in Shadowmoss.

The end result, for the moment, is the DOT’s plan to widen Highway 61 by next summer, cutting down dozens of trees along the route. But there are ways to avoid this, from the nearly impossible to the infinitely plausible.

The most obvious, and least likely, is extending the Glenn McConnell Parkway. There are nebulous plans to continue the road from its current terminus at Bees Ferry to S.C. Highway 165, near Ashley Ridge High and the homes that are springing up around there. That would be handy, and help traffic immensely.

Trouble is, that road is likely decades away — and conservationists warn it could dam up the Church Creek and Rantowles Creek basins. So that’s not a short-term solution, and probably will never get serious consideration unless North Charleston succeeds in annexing nearby land and allowing a mega-suburb to be built.

The more realistic option to save Highway 61 is to reduce the speed limit to 35 mph, as many people have suggested. Some commuters would fuss, but it would be worth it to preserve a National Scenic Byway.

The Coastal Conservation League has proposed that idea, and a number of others, that would make the road safer without sacrificing trees. That includes more narrow shoulders for the Dorchester County portion of the road — like the Charleston County stretch has — as well as rumble strips, reflectors, and perhaps even wooden guardrails that would more naturally blend in with the area.

They also say, to improve safety, cut out the passing lanes. All very good ideas.

Jason Crowley, the league’s communities and transportation program director, has urged the DOT and local governments to look at more options for the region’s transportation, including bus rapid transit on Dorchester Road, and even widening Highway 61 on the other side of the canopy — like Betsy Kerrison Parkway on Johns Island.

So far, DOT officials have not been receptive to the idea of lowering the speed limit, but they haven’t been close-minded. State Sen. Sandy Senn has been meeting with them about this for nearly a year.

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“The plans have changed drastically, with the latest version lessening tree impact,” Senn says. “The plan needs to change even more. Many of the trees contested now are pines and gums. Most, but not all, big oaks will be spared.”

As it stands, 58 trees are on the chopping block, but it isn’t clear how many are live oaks.

Senn says this is a situation where no one is going to end up completely satisfied, and that’s a fair assessment. But it wouldn’t hurt to stack the deck.

Today is the last day for the public to comment on the DOT’s website, so folks should register their opinions. Mention the Coastal Conservation League options and ask if they’d trade trees for lower speeds.

That’s really a minor concession. If the area continues to grow faster than the infrastructure, Highway 61 is going to be at a standstill anyway.

And, at a more leisurely pace, we might even be able to appreciate the historic road even more.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.