Scenic Highway 61 (copy) (copy) (copy)

Motorists travel under the scenic Highway 61 tree canopies in Dorchester County. The latest DOT plan for the corridor still threatens too many trees.  file/Brad Nettles/Staff

Few roads in the United States possess the historic resources, scenic qualities and cultural value of Ashley River Road, also known as S.C. Highway 61. Any plans to improve safety along this corridor should be tailored to preserving its unique character.

Possibly South Carolina’s oldest highway, Highway 61 was first used by the indigenous peoples of the Lowcountry and has served as a major transportation route since the late 17th century.

This road is the gateway to some of Charleston’s most beautiful landscapes, including Middleton Place, Magnolia and Drayton Hall plantations. Its cascading oaks and majestic pines contributed to its designation as a state and National Scenic Byway in 1999.

Within the past 50 years, Ashley River Road’s iconic tree canopy has faced its biggest threat –- development pressure from the city of Charleston, the town of Summerville and the city of North Charleston. This development has led to more people using the road, which, in turn, has raised valid safety concerns.

As a result, a 6.5-mile section of the road in Dorchester County is facing a proposed makeover by the South Carolina Department of Transportation through the Rural Road Safety Program, funded by the recently increased state gas tax.

The Transportation Department believes that the safety issues on the road are due to the width of the road and the proximity of the trees. As such, its original project for the iconic corridor called for widening the travel lanes and adding paved and unpaved shoulders with excessively wide “clear zones” destroying nearly 300 trees around Middleton Place and an untold number along the rest of the corridor. After public outcries to protect the canopy, DOT wisely went back to the drawing board. On Sept. 24, transportation officials presented an improved alternative for the area around Middleton Place that reduces impacts to about 60 grand trees.

Although this proposal is better, it does not go far enough.

More trees can and should be avoided. The destruction of 60 trees is still a significant impact in a small section of the overall project area. There are many trees that fall within 1 to 2 feet of the edge of the proposed edge of the “clear zone” that could and should be avoided, but they are planned for removal.

DOT should be enhancing, not harming, the intrinsic scenic qualities along the entire route as part of its duties under the Scenic Byways Program by implementing a context-sensitive design approach for the entire corridor that saves more trees.

The size of the proposed 4-foot paved shoulders should be reduced. For example, on the Charleston County side of the corridor, the addition of 2-foot shoulders and rumble strips was incorporated into a recent resurfacing project. This same approach should be applied to this project on the Dorchester County side of Ashley River Road while a longer-term safety plan is studied.

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Finally, there should be an analysis as to whether or not the posted speed limit is appropriate as well as other safety and enforcement considerations.

If people are speeding, distracted or under the influence, fatalities will continue to occur along Ashley River Road. Safety improvements must also include enforcement of traffic laws, which means that the Department of Public Safety and local law enforcement ought to be engaged on this project.

We cannot afford to work in silos and to treat this road like any other corridor. This is a project that deserves attention from everyone including Gov. Henry McMaster, the heads of the Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and the Department of Archives and History, and citizens and nongovernmental organizations committed to the preservation of this significant corridor.

There are solutions that are possible to improve safety on Ashley River Road, but they do not have to come at the expense of the natural and cultural resources that make this corridor so unique and special.

Our local and state leaders must help bring people to the table to work together for a solution that uses a scalpel instead of an ax to implement the needed safety improvements for South Carolina’s oldest continuously used highway.

Jason Crowley is communities and transportation director for the Coastal Conservation League.