Compromise reached in I-26 tree-cutting debate

File Photo (WCIV)

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Only seven miles of trees along Interstate 26 will be cut down in the name of safety.

That was the decision reached Monday morning at a meeting of{}the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. The seven miles of trees to be cut are along the deadliest stretch of highway that runs from exit 194 to exit 169, said Sen. Larry Grooms.{}

The measure passed 17-14.

"We'll solve the safety issues by putting cables in, and or barricades in.{} And we just finished last putting the rumble strips in that whole area," said Jim Rozier, commissioner for the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

The original proposal called for cutting 24 miles of trees and replacing them with high-tension wires.{}

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey advocated for cutting down all of the trees along the 24-mile stretch of highway, but Rep. Mark Sanford and Arthur Ravenel both fought against the plan.{}

Ravenel suggested the speed limit should be better enforced or reduced rather than clear the trees.

"You've got multiple opportunities for multiple car collisions occurring in a chain reaction effect.{} More people getting injured.{} And I just think that's not the proper decision," said Summey.

But On Monday, Sanford called the compromise a good deal.{}

"This morning, the Council of Governments found a workable compromise that will preserve most of the trees along I-26, and as such, I commend their hard work on this front," Sanford said. "The majority of people I've talked to in the tri-county area didn't want a whole-scale removal of trees, and many felt that clear-cutting the highway would take away from the special look and feel of the Lowcountry."

"The overwhelming majority of the public wanted as many trees saved as possible. So we started looking at how we could solve both of it, and solve the safety at the same time and that's what we did," said Rozier.

But others like Summey disagree.

"I think we actually, in some areas, have enhanced the possibility of more people being injured," said Summey.

State Department of Transportation officials say removing trees in the median will make the interstate safer. They planned to cut down all the trees in the median from Summerville to Interstate 95.

Berkeley Sen. Larry Grooms filed a joint resolution back in February that says the DOT can't proceed with the project until they report to the Transportation Review Committee for which Grooms is the Chairman.

He and other members of the transportation committee still need to write a temporary law -- and get it passed -- before those safety improvements can begin later this year.Deadly crashes are part of the reason the DOT plans to cut down the trees that sit on the median between mile markers 199 and 170. The DOT said 1,934 crashes happened on the stretch between January 2007 and November 2011. The crashes killed 44 people and injured 709 people, officials said.{}The plan includes clearing all trees from the median and putting up a cable guard rail between the travel lanes. There is 25 feet of land from the travel lanes to the trees. The improvements would give motorists 46 feet to the guard rail.Officials said the cable rail would almost double the amount of space between the road and the barrier. They also said the cable had more "give" than trees, which could protect drivers' lives.

DOT officials also point out that the number of fatalities on state roads could hinder future funding.The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League has also asked Gov. Nikki Haley to prevent the agency from cutting the trees.

"In essence, this stretch of I-26 is really the front door for many who come in our direction, and the way this gateway looks goes a long way towards attracting visitors, businesses, and new neighbors," Sanford said. "This compromise plan will help preserve one part of our area's natural beauty, and ultimately I think it's an accurate reflection of what most people in the Lowcountry wanted. Accordingly, I'd again say thanks to all who were part of bringing about this solution."

The DOT said the project would cost $5 million.