I-95 tree-cutting project delayed as state tries to avoid repeating problems

Sharon Toomer was killed in a car wreck on her way to the school on Feb. 3, 2016 about 5:35 a.m., after she lost control of her 2001 Toyota Camry on southbound I-95 and struck a tree.
Sharon Toomer was killed in a car wreck on her way to the school on Feb. 3, 2016 about 5:35 a.m., after she lost control of her 2001 Toyota Camry on southbound I-95 and struck a tree. Submitted

The schedule to cut down dangerous trees along Jasper County’s stretch of I-95 is slipping further behind as the S.C. Department of Transportation works to avoid miscalculations, cost overruns — and perhaps a political firestorm — that a similar tree-cutting project sparked in 2010 near Charleston.

While DOT originally estimated the Jasper County work could begin this year, its construction phase is now slated to begin at the end of the summer of 2017.

“It’s taking longer than we anticipated,” said Brett Harrelson, traffic engineer for DOT.

The delay increases the odds that more lives will be lost along the dangerous stretch of road. Since DOT originally announced plans to remove trees along the interstate’s edges and median, at least six drivers have died in tree-related crashes, according to the Office of Highway Safety. That includes James Matthew Eddins, a N.C. truck driver and Sharon Toomer, a Ridgeland resident and longtime cafeteria worker at Hardeeville Elementary School.

Their deaths are a continuation of a tragic trend. More drivers are fatally striking trees on I-95 in Jasper County than in any other S.C. county the interstate touches, according to a 2015 analysis by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

This despite Jasper being only the fifth most likely county to have a crash, according to the review. Roughly 36 percent of all tree-related fatalities — 25 deaths from 2010 through 2015 — occurred in the relatively short stretch of the interstate that runs through Jasper County, according to the papers’ analysis.

That’s because some Jasper County trees are within 15 or 20 feet from the edge of the interstate — a violation of a former highway safety guideline that recommends a 30-foot clear zone. More recent national research recommends even greater distances.

The I-26 tree-cutting fight

But cutting down trees is always a fight.

A similar tree-cutting project in Berkeley and Dorchester counties, outside of Charleston, sparked extensive outrage from environmentalists, residents and lawmakers alike. It left DOT with a black eye — and motivation to conduct the I-95 tree-cutting project differently.

It started in 2010. Reporters at The (Charleston) Post and Courier were tired of writing story after story of drivers and passengers dying along I-26. Enough was enough.

After analyzing a decade of data dating back to 2000, journalists found 325 deaths in 286 wrecks on I-26. They dug deeper and identified the culprit: trees, which were too close to the interstate’s edge, according to safety experts.

And much like The Island Packet’s Coffin Corridor series, The Post and Courier’s series prompted action from DOT.

DOT proposed spending $5 million to cut down all of the trees in the median of a 30-mile stretch that covered two “death zones.” Cable guardrails would then be installed down the middle of the deadly highway passage, which ran between Summerville and I-95.

I would get calls on a daily basis of people asking what kind of massacre was happening.

Natalie Olson, an attorney for the Coastal Conservation League

Jim Rozier, a former DOT commissioner for the first congressional district, pushed for the entire section to be clear cut and “thought it’d be extremely popular.”

Quite the opposite occurred during the agency’s first public hearing held in Summerville, which markets itself as the “Flower Town on the Pines.” Citizens unleashed vehement opposition in the high school gym.

“You can’t fix dumb — and dumb is no motorcycle helmets, texting, drinking. If they want to do anything ... change the speed limit from 70 to 65,” said Summerville resident Bob Wamboldt at one of the public hearings, according to a report by WMBF News.

Opponents echoed Wamboldt’s logic. Trees weren’t killing people; distracted driving and speeding were. That’s where the focus and funds should be, they argued.

The S.C. Coastal Conservation League was soon drawn into the fight too, opposing the tree-cutting plan.

“I would get calls on a daily basis of people asking what kind of (tree) massacre was happening,” said Natalie Olson, an attorney with the environmental nonprofit organization.

The league pushed for a more targeted tree-cutting approach with an extensive email and letter-writing campaign. Olson personally called representatives from each municipality in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, about 30 in all.

The league was instrumental in dispelling the notion that those concerned about saving trees were not concerned about saving lives.

“It’s not either-or — trees or safety,” Olson said. “We can achieve both.”

The project turns political

Soon, the area’s politicians joined the fight too in an effort to halt the tree clearing.

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Charleston Republican, argued that the project threatened to destroy a tree-lined entrance to the Lowcountry that residents and visitors loved. A balance between aesthetics and safety was needed, he added.

“If you’re only worried about safety, you could have a 1,000-foot clearance,” he said.

But it was Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who ultimately killed the plan.

During the summer of 2013, Grooms stood up before the S.C. Senate and made a case against DOT’s project and asked that local governments have the final say in any tree removal.

“The goal should be safety, but without scarring the landscape,” he recently said.

Control of the I-26 project was taken out of DOT’s hands — an embarrassing first for the state agency.

His wish was granted. Control of the project was taken out of DOT’s hands — an embarrassing first for the state agency.

The Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments was put in charge of the project. Its lack of support for the clear-cutting proposal forced DOT back to the drawing board.

A compromise was brokered in February 2014 between the council and DOT to cut down trees in just the seven deadliest miles and install cable rail there as well. Guard rails were installed on both sides of the remaining median.

The project’s cost was $7.5 million, right between the $5 million required to clear-cut the area and the $10 million needed to install cable barrier along the entire stretch.

The project wrapped in September 2015 — six years after it began.

Avoiding a repeat

While DOT denies that the public outcry and the General Assembly’s decision has affected the way it handles tree-cutting project, that seems to be the case.

Most notably, the agency contracted with an outside company to do the surveying work along Jasper County’s I-95 — a DOT first.

Geodigital, an Atlanta-based technology company, used technology called LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to do the work. LIDAR operates on the same principle as radar, but uses light from a laser to collect millions of datapoints from various angles of an interstate, according to the company. The technology allows crews to collect massive amounts of data while traveling in the safety of a vehicle instead of on the side of the road.

With the I-26 project, DOT did not survey, instead relying on “a lot of sporadic shots,” meaning field agents took physical measurements from the field roughly every thousand feet to verify existing slopes and tree distances.

LIDAR is almost as accurate as conventional field surveying, off by one-tenth of a percentage in comparison studies.

The technology is also fast. Geodigital spent just two weeks surveying the entire state of South Carolina in February and March 2015.

It’s cheaper, too.

$10,000-$12,000 Traditional field survey

~$83 LIDAR survey

DOT paid Geodigital $2,500 for the entire I-95 survey of Jasper County, said Chris Thibodeau, one of Geodigital’s senior vice presidents. A normal field survey costs between $10,000 and $12,000 per mile, said Eric Hall, one of the DOT engineers leading the I-95 project.

Harrelson said the use of the technology is not a reaction to the public outcry that happened over the I-26 project. Rather, it’s an effort to avoid cost overruns that plagued the project. Removal of the many trees along I-26 meant DOT workers had to bring in more fill dirt to improve drainage and alter off-road slopes, which are used to prevent cars that run off the road from overturning. That added about $430,000 to the project.

“We didn’t have detailed information, so that led to some miscalculations of quantities,” Harrelson said.

No matter the reason for the change in tactic, the Coastal Conservation League is applauding DOT’s thoughtful analysis that the I-26 project lacked.

“The initial ‘Let’s clear-cut everything,’ didn’t go over well,” Olson said. “(DOT) can see that if they lay everything out in the beginning it will save time and money.”

More delays

But use of the new technology has created delays.

DOT spent four months verifying Geodigital’s survey to ensure compatibility with the agency’s software and waiting to receive various levels of departmental approval.

And coordinating the purchase from Geodigital took longer than expected, Hall said, but the “costs savings were so significant that we held out a bit longer.”

Because DOT has a project in the works, Jasper County officials and law enforcement — who have long pushed for trees to be cut down — are now reluctant to express outrage over the delays, worried it might stall the timetable further.

Wilbur Daley, director of emergency services for Jasper County, said he understands how bureacracy can stall projects of this size.

“It’s no different than a contract for getting a building,” Daley said. “I understand it takes time.”

But in this case “lives will be lost” as I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, he added. “Things need to happen faster than they are.”

The road ahead

Based on research so far, DOT is aiming for a 55-foot clear zone along Jasper County’s section of I-95 — creating space for drivers who run off of the road to stop and gain control or lessen the blow of impact.

The number of trees that will be removed and their locations won’t be finalized until the end of the summer.

From there, the federally funded project must meet federal and environmental regulations, so DOT estimates the bidding process for contractors will begin next spring.

An existing preservation project for I-95, expected to break ground in October, will seal broken slabs of pavement, patch up concrete and improve the road’s friction surface between mile markers 4 and 22, said Kevin Turner, another engineer with DOT.

These improvement will increase the quality of the road, and thereby its safety, but “obviously won’t affect distracted drivers,” Turner said.

We’re making progress, slow and steady.

Brett Harrelson, S.C. Department of Transportation engineer

And while the I-26 project is a template, DOT’s Harrelson said there are key differences in the two interstates that will affect how the I-95 one is completed.

Most of the tree-related fatalities on I-26 were concentrated in the median. On I-95, tree-related wrecks are more scattered, so DOT needs to remove trees from the median and both shoulders. Another factor the construction crew will grapple with is the varying width of I-95’s median, which, unlike I-26’s, can be as narrow as 70 feet across and as wide as 300 feet. These differences will increase the construction timeline to an estimated 12 to 18 months.

The I-26 project took nine months, but a January 2015 start date interfered once tourism season began in spring. And issues with drainage and sloping that delayed the I-26 project are not expected on I-95 because the LIDAR technology provides a more holistic picture, Harrelson said.

Construction on I-95 is tentatively scheduled to begin at the end of summer 2017, leaving DOT a longer construction period in the off-season after traffic volumes decreased.

Despite the longer projected construction period, DOT estimates the project to cost less than I-26’s. Less extensive traffic control is expected and the wider median allows more room to work, Harrelson said, so he projected $5 million for the project.

“We’re making progress, slow and steady,” he said.


March 1-2, 2015 Only 35 miles of Interstate 95 run through Jasper County. But the short stretch is deadly -- because of trees. 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. And nothing is being done to reverse the deadly trend. Our two-day series explores the emotional and financial costs of the wrecks and why fixing it is harder than you'd think. | READ


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Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer