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Commentary: Highway 61 needs to be safe as well as have a beautiful tree canopy

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S.C. Sen. Sandy Senn

South Carolina Highway 61 makes me want to sing, but I don’t want to sing the blues!

Am I alone in getting a nostalgic feeling when riding along Highway 61 near the plantations? When I am out there, I yearn to breathe in the forest. I’ll confess I often roll down my windows and make a fool out of myself by singing to the top of my lungs. I am a terrible singer, so often my family members shush me but sometimes they sing along. In short, it is the type of place that just makes me feel good, and I don’t think I am alone in that emotion.

Therefore, nearly a year ago when Charles Duell and Tracey Todd of Middleton Place called and asked me to meet them at the plantation to discuss the proposed widening of Highway 61, I immediately said yes. Many meetings and phone conferences have followed at both Middleton Place and in my office. DOT officials have been in attendance and attentive to our environmental concerns and that includes Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall.

The reason Highway 61 was selected by DOT as one of the most important roads to upgrade was because of its serious accident and death history. All sides agree that something must be done to make the area safer. Mere law enforcement patrolling will do little to bring down the death toll.

I do not believe that the citizens who travel that road daily want there to be no repairs. Even Mr. Todd concedes safety improvements are needed and he admits that he once held the head of a gravely injured motorcyclist while waiting for first responders. In addition, Mr. Todd cares deeply about the hundreds of employees and visitors to the plantations who drive that dangerous road every day.

Why can’t we have it all?

At the outset, I asked Secretary Hall for concessions to the normal DOT widening standards given the historic and scenic nature of the road. She immediately agreed that the area deserved special consideration.

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The initial DOT plan was overwhelming and would have destroyed the nature of the area. More than 200 trees were to be taken and the width of the proposed project would have forever changed the gorgeous scenery.

Secretary Hall agreed with the Middleton executives and me that the project needed to be scaled back considerably.

The latest DOT proposal calls for the taking of 58 trees. Of those 58 trees, the majority of them are pines and gums. Twenty-eight of the trees are oaks, and it is not clear to me as of yet how many of those are grand oaks or diseased.

Regardless, the project needs to be scaled back even further. The secretary knows my feelings on this and has promised to make further changes. She is a remarkable leader and I am looking forward to DOT’s next proposal, which I know won’t please everyone, but which will hopefully please most.

The engineers and environmentalists should all go back to work to come up with a plan that allows us to have it all. We need safety. We need to keep the canopy. We all need to keep smiling when traversing the area. As for me, I’d like to keep smiling and singing loudly out there for years to come.

State Sen. Sandy Senn represents District 41, which includes portions of Charleston and Dorchester counties.

State Sen. Sandy Senn represents District 41, which includes portions of Charleston and Dorchester counties.

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