The S.C. Department of Transportation has revised its tree-cutting plans intended to improve safety along historic Highway 61 outside Charleston. The trees will now be spared.
After reviewing more than 450 public comments on plans that would have impacted the scenic highway, state Transportation Secretary Christy Hall told The Post and Courier new plans for the corridor will impact zero trees.
"We're taking a comprehensive look at the needs of the road," she said Thursday, adding that engaging the governor's office "to get Highway Patrol to agree to increase presence on the roadway is definitely part of the overall solution to delivering a good safety project on this particularly beautiful section of highway in the state."
The new design calls for keeping the highway's existing 11 foot-wide lanes, repaving them, and paving 3 feet of the existing shoulder, Hall said. By eliminating plans to widen the shoulder, the department was able to avoid touching any trees, including the iconic live oaks.
"We're taking a comprehensive look at the needs of the road," Hall said.
Hall said DOT engineers conducted an analysis of crash data and met with law enforcement to determine there were better ways to address safety on the highway than cutting down trees.
The fatal crashes that prompted a push for change typically happened at night and involved speeding or driving under the influence, Hall said. Sixty-three percent of all fatal crashes along the corridor had crossed the highway's center line, and half of the crashes occurred at curves along the highway, data showed.
To combat this, part of the design focus now will add wider and brighter pavement markings, warning signs at the curves and extending the 45-mph speed limit into Dorchester County.
The speed reduction matches the current limit for Highway 61 in Charleston County. There will also be an increased law enforcement presence, Hall said.
Initially, DOT called for widening the existing lanes from 11 to 12 feet, adding a 4-foot paved shoulder and regrading the shoulder for a distance, in addition to building on an additional 6 feet of unpaved shoulder. That plan would have impacted about 283 trees.
A second option, which the public also had a chance to comment on, kept the 11-foot lanes but still added a 4-foot shoulder and then additional clearing outside the shoulder, which impacted 58 trees.
"I think (the new plans are) a good resolution for everyone concerned," DOT Commissioner Robby Robbins said.
In a DOT statement, Gov. Henry McMaster praised the revised plan for its innovative methods in saving trees that date back hundreds of years.
“We must be good stewards of the natural, historic beauty of our state and we must always strive to provide for the safety of South Carolinians,” he said.
Jason Crowley, communities and transportation program director for the Coastal Conservation League, said he was thrilled with the changes.
"It's very exciting that our DOT, Secretary Hall and the staff really did listen to the public and didn't just move forward and push through a design that was not appropriate for this area," he said. "It's not often that the public can actually look at how a process works in a way that shows their voices are being heard."
George McDaniel, chairman of the Ashley River Scenic Advisory Council, was equally pleased: “It’s nice that DOT listened. It's really commendable.”
McDaniel is also director emeritus at Drayton Hall, one of three heavily visited historic sites along Highway 61.
DOT will finalize its engineering work and hopes to begin construction by late 2020.
Hall said it hasn't been determined how the new designs will impact the project's cost.