If you go

What: Public information meeting When: 5-7 p.m. todayWhere: Mount Pleasant Recreation Department, Park West Complex, 1251 Park West Blvd., Mount PleasantDetails: The meeting will not include a formal verbal comment period, but written comments will be accepted.

The next chapter in the saga of the S.C. Highway 41 bridge over the Wando River begins today with a public hearing to solicit comments from area residents and business owners.

With luck, drivers could travel over a new span as soon as 2016. But don’t plan on it.

“If the history of the project is any indicator of what’s to come, then there’s no telling what’s going to happen,” said Jae Mattox, program manager for the S.C. Department of Transportation. “We started working on this project back in 2003, and the bridge needed to be replaced then.”

Residents and authorities agree a new bridge is needed in the rapidly growing area. The issue is the bridge height: the Coast Guard wants 55 feet of clearance; local entities prefer a low-profile movable bridge. Residents are split on whether increased boat access is good or bad and if the bridge would fit aesthetically.

After presenting several designs to the public over eight years, the SCDOT now feels it has no options other than a 55-foot fixed span, Mattox said.

The Coast Guard said it would consider a lower span only if a test was conducted that would involve opening the bridge as often as every 30 minutes for four months.

“The bridge is in such bad shape that it wouldn’t be able to stand that much opening,” Mattox said. “If we start opening it several times a day, it could break in the ‘up’ position and then we would be in a real mess.”

Currently, boaters must request 12 hours in advance to have the bridge opened.

“It’s a lot more trouble than it’s worth to get it open, so people don’t bother going up there,” Mattox said.

At the first public information meeting in January 2005, the SCDOT presented a plan for a 45-foot clearance fixed span that nobody liked.

In May 2010, two alternatives were presented: a 55-foot fixed span and a low-level bascule bridge, similar to the existing bridge. The bascule bridge was approved, but support faltered because of an added $10 million cost to build and maintain it, Mattox said.

After today’s hearing, written comments will be presented to the Federal Highway Administration, which will determine if the project moves forward.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.