DOT rendering Highway 61 2 (copy)

An updated rendering of plans for scenic Highway 61. Under the new design, no live oak trees will be impacted. Provided

South Carolinians love the iconic tree canopy that drapes over historic Ashley River Road. The public got that message across, loudly and clearly, to the S.C. Department of Transportation, and the agency listened. The system worked.

State Transportation Secretary Christy Hall announced a revised plan last week for the proposed safety improvements for the Dorchester County portion of the road, also known as S.C. Highway 61. Under that plan, the Department of Transportation will make the road safer without removing any trees. The original plan would have taken hundreds of trees along the 6.5-mile Dorchester County stretch of this designated National Scenic Byway.

The revised plan was based on the feedback contained in more than 450 public comments submitted in October. We are thrilled by that level of civic engagement.

The DOT originally proposed to add 4-foot paved shoulders within a 12-foot “clear zone” on either side of the road in a 2-mile stretch around Middleton Place Plantation, which would have impacted more than 50 grand trees and countless smaller trees. On the portion north to Cooks Crossroads, the DOT had proposed a 25-foot clear zone that would have impacted hundreds of trees, the exact number of which was never counted.

As a result of the public comments — which advocated for improved safety along this heavily traveled corridor, but not at the expense of the very features that make this corridor so special and unique — the DOT came back with a much-improved revised plan.

The new plan reduces the clear zone space along the entire 6.5-mile corridor from 12 feet to 8 feet, with a reduction in the width of the paved shoulders from 4 feet to 3 feet. It also proposes adding center-line rumble strips to help prevent drivers from driving into the opposite travel lane. The paved shoulders will also include rumble strips on the painted line to help keep cars from going off the road.

This revised proposal remarkably reduces the impacts to the trees from hundreds of losses down to zero.

We must all tip our hats to Secretary Hall and her staff and commend them for their willingness to approach the redesign of this road in a way that preserves the historic, environmental and cultural values that make Ashley River Road so special to so many people. Engineered safety improvement designs generally follow a national formulaic design model, and that design simply did not work for Ashley River Road. Instead of steamrolling over the public and ignoring feedback, the DOT staff listened and went back to the drawing board. This sets a precedent for other safety improvement projects that the DOT will be doing on other designated National Scenic Byways in South Carolina.

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Situations like this demonstrate why public engagement is so important. The citizens of the Lowcountry contacted their county council members and state representatives, shared their thoughts with local media, attended public meetings and submitted comments to the agency. In the end, they didn’t want to lose the trees. Instead, they wanted better enforcement of traffic laws and a road design that improved safety while avoiding cutting down trees. The DOT and the S.C. Department of Public Safety delivered.

Thanks to Gov. Henry McMaster for challenging his agency leaders to work together to develop a solution that benefits everyone. Thanks to all of the local and state leaders and non-governmental organizations dedicated to the preservation of the Ashley River Historic District. Thanks to the public for remaining engaged on this issue over the past year.

And we offer a special thank you to Secretary Hall for challenging her staff to deliver a project that the public can get behind. This precedent-setting collaboration truly is a win for everyone who cares about the natural and cultural resources that line South Carolina’s extensive road network.

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