Interstate 985 motorists have their hands full with rush-hour traffic and watching out for lane closures from road projects. Now they’ve got a new distraction — bulldozers removing trees in the median and sides of the busy road.
“While it looks nice and clean, we have so few places that are natural anymore, so I miss it,” said Tricia Hushmire, an insurance account executive who drives I-985 twice each day.
The extensive tree clearing is part of the Georgia Department of Transportation’s vegetation management program, so a similar removal of trees along major routes is going on elsewhere in the state.
“It can be a little shocking to see,” DOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said.
But the major reason for the clearing is safety.
Safety numbers have shown that “one of the (top) roadway departure collisions that cause serious injury or death is with trees that are within what we call the ‘clear zone,’” Dale said.
The clear zone is DOT right of way where “if, God forbid, you fell asleep or trying to avoid an accident and ran off the road, you would have the ability to safely come to a stop or redirect yourself back onto the road,” she said.
The other safety consideration is trees falling in a storm. The clear zones are intended to prevent or limit trees from falling on roadways.
In a hurricane two years ago in southeast Georgia, “it took a significant effort to clear the trees from the interstate before crews could get (into areas) to restore power, to look at bridges,” Dale said.
And trees are prone to falling during ice storms in Northeast Georgia, including the Hall County area.
“What many people think is a beautiful roadside, we also have a priority to have a safe roadside,” Dale said.
Hushmire said she appreciated the safety concerns, but “I just don’t want us to get too much like Atlanta where we have a median separating us rather than trees.”
Ground Cover Clearing and Final Grade of Oxford is handling the I-985 work, which has been broken into phases.
One stretch was between Queen City Parkway/Exit 20 and Howard Road on Ga. 365, just north of where I-985 ends at Exit 24/Jesse Jewell Parkway.
Crews are currently working on a stretch between just south of Mundy Mill Road/Exit 16 and Exit 20, DOT district spokeswoman Katie Strickland said.
The DOT is planning for additional projects in fiscal 2020, which begins July 1.
Future work on I-985 includes tree clearing between Interstate 85 and milepost 5, or just north of Exit 4/Ga. 20 in Buford; and from milepost 5 to milepost 10, or between Exit 8/Friendship Road and Exit 12/Spout Springs Road.
The span from milepost 10 to milepost 15 “will be coordinated upon completion of the Exit 14 interchange,” Strickland said.
Crews are working all around the $34 million Exit 14 project, which will connect Martin Road at Ga. 13 on the east side of I-985 to H.F. Reed at Thurmon Tanner Parkway on the west side. Its completion date is Aug. 31.
The massive tree clearing — and turning tree stands into acres of mulch — isn’t the DOT’s first jab at removing accident-prone trees from the roadside. Smaller efforts have been done in the past.
What’s fueling the widespread, extensive clearing is a cash infusion from the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, which eliminated the state fuel sales tax at the gas pump and enacted a 26-cent excise tax.
“Due to budgetary (constraints) over the last several decades, we did not do a great job of keeping up with the overgrowth of vegetation on our right of way,” Dale said.
“Now … we have a funding mechanism to do it.”
While some drivers may be missing the trees, one environmental watchdog group that has no problem with the DOT efforts is the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter.
“While we want to keep trees in place, we’re not too concerned that clearing some trees in (the right of way) is going to have a huge impact on (containing carbon dioxide),” said Ted Terry, state director of the Georgia chapter.
John O’Sullivan, who teaches environmental studies at the University of North Georgia, still has his concerns about the DOT efforts and believes the project should have had some public input.
“People would have voiced concerns about aesthetics, water management, loss of a sound absorption buffer, loss of a pleasant visual corridor, wildlife disturbance, financial considerations, due process and long-term vision of the project and how it fits with Gainesville and Hall County land management plans,” he said.
Dale also said that “when the tree-clearing plans for each project section are drawn up, they are run through our environmental services department to … determine if there might be any concerns. Where we can, we are looking for opportunities to replant things like wildflowers and pollinator gardens, which then become a habitat for pollinators.”
And concerning potential wildlife impacts, Dale said, “We are just reclaiming the clear zone, which in most cases should not have a significant impact. As an additional safety benefit, the farther from the road way wildlife is the better it is for safety in the long run.”