Trees along a deadly stretch of I-95 in Jasper County known as the “coffin corridor” could be severely cut back from the roadway as soon as next winter, according to the South Carolina Department of Transportation.
SCDOT engineers are proposing that roughly 99 acres of trees be razed to create a 55-foot clear zone.
Those officials decided on the 55-foot zone based on average daily traffic and speed limits using industry standards from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
While some recommendations call for shorter clear zones, the association recommends wider clear zones at high crash locations.
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Jasper County’s stretch of I-95 was determined to be a high crash location in 2015, said DOT traffic engineer Brett Harrelson.
That was the same year an investigation by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette found that more motorists are dying in tree-related wrecks along this main artery to Hilton Head Island than anywhere else along I-95 in South Carolina.
Roughly 36 percent of all the I-95 tree-related fatalities — 25 deaths from 2010 through 2015 — occurred in the 35-mile stretch of interstate that runs through Jasper County, according to the papers’ analysis. And that’s despite Jasper County being only the fifth most likely county to have a crash, according to the review.
Some Jasper County trees are within 15 or 20 feet of the edge of the interstate, officials said.
“We’re worried about any trees within 55 feet (of I-95),” said SCDOT engineer Emily Toler.
She specified that the clear zone is measured from the edge of the travel lane and includes the paved shoulder.
All trees in any median less than 160 feet wide along that stretch will be cleared. If part of the median is wider than 160 feet, only the trees within the 55-foot clear zone on either side will be cut.
Sometimes there’s no good options but to clear it. It’s a balancing act to minimize wetland impacts and increase safety.
Eric Hall, S.C. Department of Transportation engineer
Here’s what is proposed from the Georgia state line to mile marker 23.19:
▪ Trees that fall within the zone will be cleared and stumps removed.
▪ Roughly 8.4 miles of cable barrier will be installed along portions of the median to prevent vehicles from crossing into oncoming traffic. Most of the cable will be placed from mile marker 8.5 to 16.
▪ Some fill material will be placed in select areas to improve grade.
From mile marker 23.19 to 32.5:
▪ Trees that fall within the clear zones will be removed, but stumps will be left in place.
▪ No fill material will be brought in.
Forty-six of the 99 acres to be cleared are in wetlands.
Most of the environmental impact — roughly 36 of those 46 acres — will fall within just eight miles of interstate, from mile marker 8 to mile marker 16. Another 6.5 acres will be impacted from mile marker 23 through 32.
All of DOT’s federally funded projects that impact the environment require a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. DOT submitted its application to the Corps on Dec. 30, Toler said.
Contractors will begin bidding after the permit is secured, expected this spring, SCDOT officials said.
However, a representative from the Corps was unable to confirm that.
“It could take months or years, depending on how much they’re proposing to impact (environmentally),” said Corps spokesman Sean McBride.
He confirmed the application is under review and that SCDOT has already provided additional information at the Corps’ request.
While the S.C. Coastal Conservation League agrees that Jasper County’s stretch of I-95 poses significant safety concerns, the group plans to rigorously analyze SCDOT’s proposal. The environmental nonprofit group did the same for a similar tree-cutting project along a stretch of I-26 outside of Charleston, in Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
“We scrutinized crash data, mile marker by mile marker, along with wetlands data to ensure we preserved as much of the wetlands as possible without compromising safety,” said project manager Rikki Parker.
Following the organization’s analysis, SCDOT’s originally proposed 23 miles of clear-cutting along I-26 was reduced to seven miles. The environmental impact was reduced to 4.2 acres of wetlands — a tenth of the estimated 46 acres of impact along I-95, Parker said.
In anticipation of criticism from environmentalists, DOT project engineer Eric Hall told The Island Packet in September, “Sometimes there’s no good options but to clear it. It’s a balancing act to minimize wetland impacts and increase safety.”
Proposed timeline, cost estimates
SCDOT originally estimated the work would begin in 2016.
Construction is now slated to begin in September and to last 12 to 18 months.
The delay was somewhat intentional, SCDOT representatives said, to expand the window of working time outside of tourism season. The portion of the project scheduled for next winter will require lane closures.
The originally estimated $5 million cost of the project is now expected to cost between $6 million and $8 million in federal funds, Toler said.
The increase is because a repaving project from mile marker 23 to 33 will be included in the project, despite not being part of the original plan.
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Have an opinion about the project?
The S.C. Department of Transportation is hosting a public information meeting. from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Ridgeland Baptist Church, 1448 Grays Highway. Agency representatives will be available to answer questions about the safety project.