Passing previously forested portions of the Interstate 16 median that have now been cleared of trees, drivers are seeing a project that involves the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Forestry Commission and a private timber buyer.
Eventually, the trees and bushes will be removed from a total of 465 acres, at 10 locations, from near the Candler-Emanuel County line west of Metter to the Pooler Parkway in Chatham County.
The two-year project is intended to make the highway safer, said Georgia DOT District 5 Communications Officer Jill Nagel. The tree removal phase began in February and is about half complete.
Many pines in the wooded areas had reached maturity, Nagel said, and Department of Transportation officials were concerned about disease weakening trees and limbs or trees falling onto the highway.
Another concern was vehicles striking trees when drivers lose control or swerve onto the median.
“There has also been a 50 percent increase over the last two years of single-car collisions, which means people running off the roadway and hitting fixed objects, like trees and bridges, so we’re trying to provide more recovery zones,” Nagel said. “We’ve also seen a 60 percent increase in fatalities due to drivers not maintaining their lane.”
Distracted driving, she said, is largely to blame.
“We’re just trying to be proactive,” Nagel added. “The citizens have said that we’ve got to make our roadways safer, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
I-16 is also a major coastal evacuation route. The DOT’s February press release announcing the project noted that fallen trees and debris hindered re-entry to evacuated areas after Hurricane Matthew struck coastal Georgia last October.
The announcement stated that the project will restore sight distance along large portions of the interstate, improve the visibility of signs and allow the department “to expand its cable barrier program along the corridor,” as well as create recovery zones.
Recovery zones are areas where drivers who veer onto the median can steer back onto the pavement without hitting anything.
Started in Candler
Crews from Wall Timber Company out of Fairfax, South Carolina, started work in Candler County, moving toward Savannah. Wall won a bid to buy the state-owned timber through the Georgia Forestry Commission, which estimated the value of the sale at $604,549. But Wall’s bid was for unit prices, by tonnage and type of tree, so the actual revenue to the state won’t be known until the harvest is complete.
The 10 locations are scattered along about 60 miles of median, from near mile 95.5, west of Georgia Highway 57, eastward to Exit 155, the Pooler Parkway. The only Chatham County site and the only Effingham County site consist of the wooded interior quadrants of the Exit 155 and Exit 148 interchanges.
But three of the sites were in Candler County. Five are in Bulloch County, which contained more than half of the total acreage to be cleared.
Now about five months into the project, five of the 10 sites have gone through or are now in Phase 1 of the process, which is tree harvesting. On three of the sites, the work has moved into Phase 2, debris removal, which includes stump grinding, Nagel said Thursday.
Phase 3, replanting, will begin this summer, she said.
“Especially up in the Candler County area they’ve already completed the stump grinding and there’s a layer of mulch, so it does look very bare, but we’re coming back and putting pollinator gardens for the bees,” Nagel said. “We’re just trying to be really environmentally sensitive.”
Plants that appeal to pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, will be planted in designated areas of all 10 sites, and Bermuda grass will be planted on all other areas, the state agencies announced.
The plant mix includes 15 species, among them purple coneflower, butterfly weed, various mints, a milkweed, downy sunflower and wild blue indigo, according to a list Nagel provided.
These plants should help stabilize the soil and provide a surface that can be maintained as grassland, she said.
Georgia Forestry Commission best-management practices are being applied to the timber harvest and protecting water quality, said GFC Chief of Forest Management Gary White. Otherwise, the commission’s role was limited to handling the sale, which by law it does for all state-owned timber, he said.
Some trees are being retained, especially around ponds and creeks within the medians. The commission calls these areas streamside management zones.
“Also, we did not cross any of those areas with equipment,” White said. “We stayed basically away from those areas with any kind of land disturbance.”
White noted that the interstate highway was built through and around timberland. But timber management practices, which would include thinning the stand of trees and controlled burning to promote the growth of pines, would be very difficult in medians surrounded by busy highways, he said.
“Can you imagine trying to burn in the interstate, what issues with safety?” White said. “That would be just pretty much impossible.”
The Forestry Commission’s Jan. 12 notice seeking a buyer for the timber stated that the Georgia DOT would construct the access points and coordinate traffic flow for log trucks to get in and out.
“Motorists can expect weekday lane closures during daylight hours generally in the eastbound travel lanes with a few locations in the westbound lanes,” the DOT’s February project announcement stated. “These lane closures will be utilized for safe entry and exit of heavy equipment vehicles.”
The Department of Transportation urges the public to exercise extreme caution around work zones.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.