State Spending Millions To Cut Down 60,000 Potentially Dangerous Trees Along Highways
Hartford Courant, May 23, 2019
By Greg Hladky
Connecticut’s Department of Transportation has some serious tree concerns. Oddly enough, they’re not related to lots of complaints about the clear-cutting along interstate medians and shoulders, like the section of I-91 south of Hartford.
A far bigger tree worry for the DOT, one that’s expected to cost tens of millions of dollars and take years to resolve, are the estimated 60,000 dead or dying trees along state highways and routes all across Connecticut.
“And that’s a very conservative estimate,” said Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the state DOT.
“We can’t cut them fast enough,” Nursick said of the huge numbers roadside trees that have the potential to fall and block state highways or cause vehicle accidents. Forestry experts say those dead or dying trees, and millions of others around Connecticut, are victims of invasive insects like Gypsy moths and the Emerald ash borer, damage from severe storms or drought, pollution or simply old age.
DOT officials say the public’s tree-related questions and complaints stem from the fact that many people have forgotten those areas along the Interstates and the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways aren’t supposed to be overgrown with trees. The department is supposed to keep 30-foot-wide “clear zones” along major highway medians and shoulders for safety reasons, but hasn’t been able to for decades.
“The reason we have so many trees there is that the DOT has been historically under-funded and under-staffed for tree work,” Nursick said. In the last few years, the DOT has responded to storm-related tree falls along highways by dramatically stepping up its clearing efforts along medians and shoulders.
Those 30-foot-wide clear zones are for both sides of an interstate. In sections such as I-91 south of Hartford, the median between the north- and south-bound lanes is actually less than 60 feet wide, according to Nursick, which means all trees in the median are being taken down. The rationale for having those clear zones is to give vehicles that leave the road surface space to slow down before hitting any obstacles. “We haven’t been doing this for decades, and the public had gotten used to [having medians and shoulders crowded with trees],” Nursick said.
The transportation agency began to step up efforts to clear away trees close to the interstates and other major state roads after many trees and limbs fell onto travel lanes after massive storms in 2011 and 2012.
Hurricanes caused rethinking back to top
Hurricane Irene and the major October “Halloween” snowstorm in 2011 brought down thousands of trees across the state and “Superstorm” Sandy in 2012 felled thousands more across roads and power lines.
State records show that, since 2014, the DOT has spent approximately $36.3 million cutting trees down and clearing medians and shoulder areas along Connecticut interstates and highways. In 2018-19 alone, the DOT’s tree management program is expected to spend nearly $9.1 million.
Nursick said the cost of taking down trees in the clear zones along I-91 in Rocky Hill and Cromwell is estimated at $384,000. The project covered about 5.5 miles along the heavily-traveled interstate.
The vast numbers of dead roadside trees in danger of falling is a big worry not only for the DOT but also for municipalities, utilities, homeowners and businesses all over Connecticut.
Tom Worthley, a forestry expert and associate professor with the UConn Extension System, said a survey in the eastern part of the state found the number of dead or dying trees along some roads can be as high as 30-40 per mile.
One result of the widespread and increasing concern about taking down potentially dangerous dead trees is that licensed arborists and tree-cutting contractors are now in very short supply.
In addition to DOT state crews, the transportation agency routinely hires contractors to help remove trees. But Nursick explained that “it’s getting harder to find contractors.”
Connecticut utilities and others looking to take down dead trees are employing large numbers of tree-cutting operations in an effort to protect power lines and poles from falling trees. “Everybody is hiring them,” Nursick said. Officials at Connecticut’s largest utility, Eversource, estimate they spent $65 million to repair power lines and poles knocked down by trees felled by fierce winds and tornadoes during a single major storm in May 2018.
The DOT has a different standard for taking down trees along state routes than it does for clearing safety zones along the interstates. Many state roads run through neighborhoods where tree-cutting crews must deal with the concerns of homeowners, utility lines and local traffic.
“It takes a lot more time,” Nursick said.
On top of all the other problems plaguing Connecticut’s trees, those growing close to state routes and other roads are often troubled by pollution and cramped conditions for their root systems.
“Trees along roadways tend to be compromised,” Nursick said, making those trees even more vulnerable to pests, diseases and storm damage. “All of these things are adding up,” he said of the state’s growing problem of dealing with tens of thousands of dead trees.