Two weeks ago the Ravenel Bridge was closed for 43 hours because there was ice on the road and the state Department of Transportation couldn't put sand on it.
That's what they said, anyway.
Turns out, that's not entirely true.
In a meeting Monday at Charleston City Hall, DOT officials conceded what bridge experts have been saying all along: there is a way to put sand on the bridge without messing up the Ravenel's complex closed-drainage system.
Basically, just plug the drains.
The DOT didn't do that.
State Sen. Larry Grooms says sand is a vital component needed to treat icy roads, "and it seems like they would figure out a way to put sand on the bridge without stopping up its unique drainage system."
Transportation officials told Charleston and Mount Pleasant officials that sanding the bridge is one idea they will study for future weather events.
But if it ices over again this week, the Ravenel Bridge is going to be closed again. Because DOT officials say this simple fix requires more vetting.
Think about that when you are sitting in a little parking lot we like to call I-526.
Put a cork in it
The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge is the most modern, technologically advanced span in this state.
The road surface is paved with concrete and latex, and its drainage system is closed.
See, most bridges have a series of "weep holes" so that rain and stormwater and anything else that accumulates on the road simply pours out those holes into the water below. It's pretty simple.
But the Ravenel Bridge's builders decided that oily water and road grime shouldn't rain down on all the ships passing underneath. Which was polite of them.
This closed drainage system would clearly get clogged up and fail if a half-ton of sand was poured into it. So DOT chose to treat the bridge a few weeks back with a mix of saltwater and calcium chloride - a diluted mix to keep from eating away all that latex.
But without sand to hold that mix in place, it simply washed away and the bridge iced up pretty badly. The roadway became a slippery, dangerous mess.
Some bridge experts will tell you the way you keep a roadway open during ice is to lay on the sand and salt, enough to keep traffic moving. The traffic breaks up the ice and keeps it from creating a sheen on the road.
Without sand, and without traffic, the Ravenel Bridge - and most of the Lowcountry - was out of commission.
But bridge experts say if the Ravenel's drains were simply blocked, it could be treated for ice just like the Don Holt or any other bridge.
Then it could remain open.
DOT may test that. Next winter.
Swept under the rug
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, whose district includes the bridge, pointed out that local officials - and not DOT - made the call to close the road.
He said eventually politicians applied pressure that forced the Ravenel Bridge to open before it was ready. Of course, it wasn't ready because even after the roadway was clear, there was a ton of ice on the cable stays that rained down on traffic a day later.
The bridge was closed again, but you can't pin that on anyone. That was just bad luck. And it was right to close the bridge then.
Limehouse says, bottom line, keeping the bridge closed should be a decision best left to police and transportation types.
"Sure, it was inconvenient, but I think we need to keep politics out of it and let the experts make the decision based on safety," Limehouse says.
He's absolutely right.
State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, who was critical of the length of time the bridge was closed, said the bridge was unsafe because of miscalculations on the state's part.
"No one wants an unsafe bridge open," Stavrinakis says. "But it's clear the DOT didn't have a plan and it was very costly to three of the biggest cities in the state. They need a plan before that happens again."
DOT officials say their postmortem on the ice storm could last months, and they aren't about to change their game plan in the middle of the season.
The DOT said Tuesday that sanding the bridge is one option on the table, but there are pros and cons. In other words, is it worth the trouble of cleaning out the drainage system afterward?
Some people who know the bridge fairly well say if the drains are plugged, they could wash or sweep the sand away after a weather event, and very little sand should contaminate the system.
But apparently DOT wants to study that a little more before testing it. So don't count on the bridge being open if ice rains down on Charleston again this winter.
That is the real inconvenient truth here.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org
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