DOT plans to beautify Columbus interchange

Published 1:41 pm Friday, June 6, 2008

A cleared area along the I-26 off-ramp at Columbus that was previously filled with trees and brush.It may not look like it now, but the I-26/US 74 interchange in Columbus may become one of the more attractively landscaped interchanges in the state, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT).

&dquo;It&squo;s the first exit you see when you enter the state on I-26 (from South Carolina) so it ought to be the best one,&dquo; says county maintenance engineer Jeff Moore with Highway Division 14. &dquo;We want you to come into North Carolina and say,&squo;Isn&squo;t that a beautiful exit?&squo; We really want it to look great.&dquo;

DOT recently began a project to beautify areas around the interchange, including the off-ramp from I-26 westbound and the on-ramp to I-26 eastbound&bsp; from Hwy. 108, along with the ramp from U.S. 74 to I-26 eastbound.

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Moore says the project is designed not only to enhance the appearance of the interchange, but to enhance safety by improving visibility for drivers and eliminating liability problems posed by trees close to the roadsides. The areas had grown to have many tall trees and thick underbrush.

The ramp from U.S. 74 was particularly problematic for some truck drivers who had a hard time seeing the sharp curve ahead because of trees. Some trucks have struggled to slow sufficiently and have been involved in accidents at the ramp, including one recently that failed to make the turn and ran down a hill into a tree.

&dquo;We had some sight distance problems and some liability concerns, and this takes care of those,&dquo; says Moore.

The first step in the interchange beautification project was to clear all the trees and brush. Moore says funding recently became available in the budget so DOT launched the project that he says he&squo;s wanted to work on for a while. The funds, he says, are within the Roadside Environmental Unit&squo;s current allocation.

DOT has already planted grass seed in the cleared areas to prevent erosion and plans to plant wildflowers as well. New trees and ornamental plants will be planted during the fall and winter planting season, according to Moore. He says the state&squo;s Roadside Environmental Unit will work on a landscape design plan in coordination with area organizations, including the Polk County Appearance Commission.

Moore says it would have been nice to keep some of the hardwoods, but some trees were not in good condition. He adds that the state now has &dquo;an opportunity to get it right,&dquo; and create a landscape design that puts plants and shrubs in the most suitable locations for both appearance and safety.

Joe Cooper of the Polk County Appearance Commission says he heard from a number of people troubled by the changes at the interchange. He says they were particuarly concerned about the clearcutting, a practice that&squo;s drawn strong protest from residents where it&squo;s occurred in other areas of the county.

But Cooper says he looks forward to working with the state to help shape what the interchange will look like. He says the county has many people who are experts in gardening and landscape design and they can help create a model interchange for a rural area. The design, he says, should use native, drought-tolerant plants, incorporating principles of xeriscaping to avoid the need for supplemental irrigation.

Cooper says the interchange can be the second &dquo;point of pride&dquo; in a new county program that allows organizations, businesses or individuals to sponsor specific areas and maintain them as part of the county&squo;s beautification efforts. The first &dquo;point of pride,&dquo; he says, was an area in front of the county&squo;s tourism office. The county continues to look for people who want to sponsor other &dquo;points.&dquo; Anyone interested can contact Cooper at 894-8762.

DOT&squo;s Moore says he looks forward to gaining cooperation and input from the beautification commission on the interchange project.

Moore acknowledges that the cleared areas &dquo;look rough&dquo; now, but says they will soon improve and should look much different by next spring.

&dquo;That&squo;s what we want. We want to make it look as good as we can,&dquo; he says.