Contractors are expected to start work as early as next month on the $9 million project with the goal of wrapping up by the end of 2018, SCDOT traffic safety engineer Brett Harrelson said Thursday.
Improvements will be focused on the 33 miles of highway from the Georgia state line to milepost 33 at the border of Jasper and Hampton counties.
The state had slated construction of the safety improvements — which will be paid for using federal grant funds — to begin in 2016, but delays pushed the project back.
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“South Carolina leads the nation in highway fatality rates,” S.C. Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall said in a statement. “This is a ranking we don’t want to own any longer.”
“A great number of our highway deaths occur on rural roads of all types, including sections of our interstates,” she said. “This project is a significant step in reducing fatalities and serious injuries on rural highways in our state.”
In 2015, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette found that more motorists were 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 stretch of interstate that runs through Jasper County, according to the newspapers’ analysis.
“Priority one (for reducing the danger posed by trees) is keeping vehicles from leaving the roadway,” Harrelson said.
The new rumble strips will help warn drivers when they are nearing the side of the roadway and allow them to correct course before they run off the road and toward a tree, he said.
“But if they leave the roadway, we want to give them an opportunity to recover,” Harrelson said.
SCDOT plans to create wider “clear zones,” which are areas free of trees, in order to help drivers recover.
The state plans to clear all trees in any median less than 160 feet wide.
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, according to documents submitted by SCDOT to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The removal of trees and the potentially negative impacts the improvements could have on wetlands near the roadway have raised concerns with environmental protection groups.
Staff with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League scrutinized a similar tree-cutting project along a stretch of I-26 outside of Charleston and ultimately came to a compromise with SCDOT to reduce the number of trees cleared.
The nonprofit organization was unable to reach a similar compromise on the Jasper County I-95 project, league project manger Rikki Parker said Thursday.
Harrelson said it is SCDOT’s goal to keep environmental impacts to a minimum.
During the planning process, “we ended up adding some features to help with erosion control and reduce the number of trees we have to clear,” he said.