A tree-cutting project along Jasper County's portion of Interstate 95 is being held up by a lengthy planning and approval process, say state transportation officials.
Improvements to the deadly stretch of road are unlikely to happen until 2017 -- even though officials with the S.C. Department of Transportation originally estimated the work could begin as early as this year.
More deadly tree-related crashes occur on Jasper's stretch of I-95 than in any other county along the interstate, according to an investigation by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette last year. A few weeks after the investigation was published, an email from a state transportation official indicated that work could begin this winter.
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But no work has been done yet. And drivers along the deadly stretch continue to die.
- Early Wednesday, Sharon Toomer, 52, of Ridgeland and a longtime cafeteria worker at Hardeeville Elementary School, lost control of her car on the way to work and struck a tree near mile marker 15 between Hardeeville and Ridgeland.
- On March 7, Maurice L. Doe, 33, of Hardeeville lost control of his SUV and crashed into trees near mile marker 8 in Hardeeville.
- On Sept. 13, James Matthew Eddings, 75, a tractor-trailer driver from Moncure, N.C., crashed his rig into trees near mile marker 13 in Hardeeville. The coroner initially speculated the cause of death could be a health condition affecting him before the crash, but an autopsy later determined he died from the impact.
Chart tips: Tap/hover over chart areas to see details. Small-screen users, drag chart to left to see off-screen areas.
Source: SC Department of Public Safety/Office of Highway Safety and Justice Programs. Data as of Feb. 5, 2016.
Local leaders say they're fed up with the delays.
"I get kind of emotional just trying to express myself about it," said Jasper County Council Chairman Marty Sauls, anger rising in his voice. "It shouldn't have to be this way."
Hardeeville Police Chief Sam Woodward, whose department responds to fatal wrecks on his city's stretch on I-95, is also upset about the slow pace.
"I'm not happy about it," Woodward said. "I've asked for trees to be cut, begged for the trees to be cut. ... I don't know who else to ask.
"I wished it didn't take so long."
WHY THE LONG WAIT?
SC Department of Transportation officials say the delays are mostly due to a decision to do more extensive surveys of the targeted tree-cutting area, which is in the median between the S.C.-Georgia state line and mile marker 33.
The survey decision came after cost overruns in a tree-clearing and safety project that began in January on Interstate 26 west of Charleston, according to Brett Harrelson, DOT state traffic safety engineer. Harrelson said DOT relied on sporadic surveys for tree-clearing and other safety improvement on that highway.
But during the tree logging, 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, said Tony Fallaw, director of traffic engineering. Overruns added about $430,000 to that project, he said.
Last fall, DOT workers were doing similar sporadic surveys for I-95, when the decision came from the planning department in October or November to do more extensive surveys, Harrelson said. The additional surveys will take about four weeks to complete, he added.
"We're trying to go as quickly as we can," Harrelson said. "We know it's a priority."
After that the project will go through an environmental permitting process because wetlands are in the area. That will also involve a public comment process. He said construction bids could be accepted next winter. But the schedule depends on how long it takes to get the permits and whether there is environmental opposition to the project. The federal government also requires cost-benefit analysis for the safety projects.
DOT Commissioner Jim Rozier, whose district includes Charleston County, said he was unaware of cost overruns on I-26, but supports more extensive surveying along I-95.
Additional surveying helped save trees along I-26 that weren't too close to the road, he said. That appeased environmental groups who opposed the tree-cutting project, he added.
"People go nuts when you cut down trees," he said.
'IT'S A LIFE OR DEATH SITUATION'
The survey that is expected to be finished in a month will examine the appropriate "clear zone" -- the amount of space needed to stop, gain control or lessen a crash's impact if a driver runs off the road, according to state officials.
DOT officials said the tree-cutting project would also include cable barriers in the medians to stop errant cars from crossing into opposing lanes.
In the case of Jasper County's portion of I-95, some trees are as close as 10 feet to the road, leaving drivers little time to avoid a fatal impact.
Improving safety would likely require creating a 46-foot clear zone on parts of the highway, DOT officials have said.
Federal safety guidelines suggest at least a 30-foot clear zone. Death rates rise when that clear zone is less than that.
Jasper County administrator Andrew Fulghum said he is still awaiting details on the scope of the safety project.
"I am pleased that the DOT is moving forward, but I'm as frustrated as others about the (fatalities)," he said.
He said he has heard public support for the project and not much from opponents of tree-cutting.
Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, said he has heard some opposition to the tree-cutting, but he supports the project and wants the DOT to move faster.
"This is a life or death situation," he said.
Follow city editor Don McLoud on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Don.
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