GDOT addresses massive tree removal on I-95 and I-16

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - In February of 2017, the Department of Transportation unveiled a two-year plan to remove 465 acres of trees along parts of I-95 and I-16.

People were told to expect minor trimming and vegetation management. What happened went so much further.

"Now they just mowed down all the trees and it looks like a bomb went off," said Jason Spencer, Georgia Representative from Camden County.

Representative Spencer noticed the clearing around Thanksgiving of 2017. Not too long after, the GDOT issued a press release concerning the tree removal and insisted the process was for safety. They claim 50 percent of fatalities from crashes result from vehicles striking fixed objects like trees, and during the past three years, there have been nearly 500 fatalities involving a crash with a tree.

While the state increased safety, a domino effect of pitfalls followed. The project eliminated sound and privacy barriers for hundreds of people living near the highways, but GDOT says the trees didn't qualify as a blockade in the first place.

Representative Spencer says he disagrees and is pushing for verification.

"I would like for them to do a sound study now. What does it sound like now? Because all of my constituents can't be wrong on this," he said.

Representative Spencer met with GDOT two weeks ago and says during his meeting, they said the large and old trees were especially unsafe during hurricane seasons. Their stability posed threats and caused countless re-entry delays following evacuations by falling into the highways.

On the contrary, an Ogeechee Riverkeeper says trees absorb flood water and this will actually cause a bigger headache.

"More erosion, possibly more flooding. I imagine you will see a lot more standing water in those medians now because of those trees not taking those things up," Luke Roberson said.

The Riverkeeper sent an open records request in December and another earlier this month to see if the DOT followed all environmental regulations. They have not heard back. If that's true, Georgia-DOT has in fact broken the law. The O.C.G.A. § 50-18-71(b)(1)(A) requires a response within three days or a reason for exemption.

WTOC reached out to the GDOT today, and received the following statement:

"The Georgia Department of Transportation has heard the concerns from some area residents about the removal of the overgrown brush and trees from the medians on I-16 and I-95. Safety is Georgia DOT's number one priority. With increased motorist safety as the goal, Georgia DOT is clearing overgrown brush and trees in the state's rights of way to recover what are known as clear zones along our roadways, a program first announced in February 2017.

In Georgia, 50% of fatalities from crashes result from vehicles striking fixed objects like trees. In fact, during the past three years, there have been 472 fatalities involving a crash with a tree, more than twice the number of fatalities than when the collision involves any other fixed object. These alarming figures indicate deaths that may have been preventable. Clearing the clear zones can not only save lives, but can also help minimize the severity of nonfatal run-off-the-road crashes. Georgia DOT is also working to remove aging, dead and diseased trees that can fall, block roadways and endanger motorists during and after storms, hurricanes and tornados. 

Many of these projects are not yet complete. From the outset our plan has been to reestablish and beautify the cleared areas. Following the removal of existing trees, soil-stabilizing pollinator flower gardens will be planted seasonally in designated areas, beautifying the roadsides and offering a habitat for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and grasshoppers. Grass planting will begin this spring and continue through the fall.  Georgia DOT is also developing plans to plant new trees at the Exit 1 interchange on I-95 in Camden County, as well as some of the wider median areas along I-16.  As planned, we are aggressively pursuing clean up, grassing, and beautification in all of the affected areas in order to provide appealing and safer roadsides that will serve as a welcome mat for Georgia travelers. We appreciate the patience of the public as these projects move to completion."

Spencer says the Georgia DOT has agreed to better communication moving forward, and he expects results and more answers to come.

"You need to get buy-in as you move forward in this beautification project and also we need to find a solution on the sound. That's an issue that right now is not resolved, but we need to find a way to resolve it," he said.

On top of the noise, residents are also upset their taxpayer money went towards this tree removal, and now, they will have to dish out more money to replant trees, grasses, and shrubs.

WTOC asked the Department of Transportation how much the tree removal process cost, and now, what the estimated value is on the beautification process should be. The GDOT has not answered.

This is, however, the timeline GDOT provided for the process:

WTOC will continue to follow this story. 

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