Work exposes homes to life on interstate

Anna Seigler admits she's fighting a last-minute battle, but she feels she has no choice.

By the end of the year, the long swath of trees that serves as the only barrier between her neighborhood and Interstate 20 will be cut down as crews continue work on a $51 million lane expansion of the highway between Warren Road and the Augusta Canal.

Ms. Seigler, who lives on Skinner Road near the entrance to the Holly Haven subdivision, said she sees no point in the crews removing what little protection she has from the busy interstate.

"Why do they want to do this?" Ms. Seigler said. "They're just exposing us."

A little more than a week ago, crews from the Georgia Department of Transportation began removing trees alongside I-20 in advance of a project that will add one lane to each side of the interstate in the existing median. A concrete wall will be added between the lanes and the bridges spanning Washington Road. River Watch Parkway will be widened as well.

DOT spokeswoman Cissy McNure wrote in an e-mail that the trees are being removed because of liability issues - fatal car accidents often involve trees. She also said branches and limbs could fall in the road and cause traffic delays.

DOT engineer Mike Keene said he doesn't know of an instance where this has happened on I-20 in Augusta, but that the trees would have to go anyway because work crews need room for machinery to install new fencing and sound walls.

He said the walls will be safer for vehicles because they are built to deflect the impact of a vehicle.

"We're trying to get the accident rate down to one vehicular death per 100 million vehicle miles," Mr. Keene said. "With trees being on the right of way, that's one of the larger causes of death all over the state, not just here."

Ms. Seigler's home sits just a stone's throw from where backhoes will clear the pines that isolate the neighborhood from the road. In an attempt to prevent the crews from cutting the trees, Ms. Seigler has tried to rally residents and has met with Department of Transportation officials, but she's had no luck.

She's concerned that without the trees, her home will become too noisy and possibly more prone to robberies.

She might be right. Across the interstate sits Olin Plunkett's home and business, Plunkett Heating and Air Conditioning. Mr. Plunkett said burglars have broken into his warehouse twice since the trees were cut down.

He said he understands that the property is the DOT's and that it can do as it wishes. He just hopes for something to cut down on the noise and provide some cover.

"You cannot sit down and hold a conversation outside," Mr. Plunkett said.

According to the state Department of Transportation's Web site, a sound barrier will be built in front of Mr. Plunkett's business. A second wall will cover the area near Ms. Seigler's neighborhood and the Warren Road Community Center. It will end near Skinner Road, giving some residents a clear view of the interstate.

Jimmy Heath's home on Skinner Mill Road has been exposed for almost two years while he waits on crews to build a barrier wall. The trees near his home were cleared as part of the Crane's Creek culvert project, and in the time since, he said, his house has attracted stranded motorists asking for help.

He doesn't mind helping, or the expansion of the road, but the noise is something he has never gotten used to.

Contractors have one year from the time they are given the green light to begin a project to build sound barriers, according to Ms. McNure. In Mr. Heath's case, the funding was not provided for under the Crane's Creek project. Rather, they will be built in conjunction with the work on the I-20 and Bobby Jones Expressway interchange.

At least one Columbia County resident and his neighbors were able to lobby officials to have a sound barrier built near their homes when trees were cut.

Charles Reynolds lives in the Belglade subdivision off of Old Belair Road, near I-20. He said he and others living in the area were able to have a meeting with DOT officials in Atlanta.

Initially, they were told that no wall would be built, but with the help of 10th District U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood; Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans; and Columbia County Commissioner Tommy Mercer, the state approved $8 million for the barriers earlier this year, according to a story in The Augusta Chronicle.

"It's sort of the old saying you can't fight city hall, and with the DOT that's just about true," Mr. Reynolds said.

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.