Pleas for the trees: Senator says ‘clear zones’ on state routes waste money

December 11, 2015

Republican American

TORRINGTON — The state Department of Transportation has been cutting down trees for highway “clear zones” for years, but the practice periodically gets vilified in the court of public opinion.

On Dec. 1, at the prompting of some constituents opposed to tree cutting along Route 8, state Sen. Kevin D. Witkos wrote a letter to DOT Commissioner James Redeker asking him to halt all “future unnecessary tree removal.”

Clear zones are stretches of land on either side of a highway, usually about 30 feet wide, that are free of immovable objects, such as trees.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said clear zones are a basic principle of transportation safety, but Witkos said he opposes the practice and added that the $112,935 cost for the work in Torrington is too much.

“I’m all for trimming so trees don’t fall in the middle of the roadway,” Witkos said on Wednesday. “But I don’t think clear-cutting is the way to go. Let’s look to see if there are other areas in transportation to invest our money in.”

NURSICK SAID THE DEPARTMENT is re-establishing clear zones that have existed for decades but became overgrown because of a lack of funding. The clear zone in Torrington is on the Route 8 median for a 2-mile stretch near the Winsted line.

Following Hurricane Irene in August 2011, the October 2011 snowstorm and super storm Sandy in 2012, several state highways were closed because of trees that had fallen in the road. After Hurricane Irene, Route 15 was closed from New York to Interstate 91 for fallen trees.

Nursick said this made officials change course on funding the department.

“With each of those storms, we had major transportation outages on the highway systems,” Nursick said. “Suddenly, the Department of Transportation was getting funded appropriately to be able to perform tree work.”

Kenneth Morton of New Hartford was one constituent who reached out to Witkos and expressed concern that trees along Route 8 were being removed and chipped on scene. He said he noticed trees were being taken down from the median about three or four months ago.

“They’re spending a lot of taxpayer money on this effort that is inappropriate at this time when we’re in a fiscal mess,” Morton said.

WITKOS SAID HE WAS SHOCKED when he drove up Route 8 to see for himself what had happened to the median. He said he hoped the department would reprioritize its funds to fix bridges or roads, which he said are constant sources of complaints for municipalities.

“The bureaucracy of the state is, ‘Hurry up, let’s spend all this money so we have it again next year,'” Witkos said.

Nursick said he wasn’t sure how the issue became controversial. In 2013, DOT cleared a section of trees between Route 8 and South Main Street in Naugatuck, and residents complained partly because of the resulting appearance. DOT has been playing catch up all around the state for about four years, Nursick said.

Nursick did not have numbers available for how many fatal accidents have resulted from cars striking immovable objects. He described the clear zones as a preventive safety measure.

“CLEAR ZONES ARE LIKE SEAT BELTS,” Nursick said. “You pay them little attention until something goes terribly wrong; only then do you truly appreciate their importance and their ability to save lives.”

Two teenagers died on Route 8 in 2009 after their car flew off the embankment on Exit 13 in Shelton, went through a chain-link fence and struck a tree. The state medical examiner’s office said Thursday the cause of death for both teens was blunt force trauma. Police said at the time that speed also likely was a factor.