HICKS COLUMN: South Carolina has a bridge to sell you
So get this: We're about to spend millions for a bridge far bigger than we need and almost no one wants.
Gotta love the government.
Now, just about everyone agrees S.C. Highway 41 needs a new bridge over the Wando River. The old swing bridge, well, doesn't swing. It hasn't been opened for boat traffic since 2011 for fear it wouldn't close again.
For a decade, the state Department of Transportation has gone back and forth between a drawbridge and a fixed span for the site. In all that time, residents have been clear: they don't want a monstrosity cluttering the landscape.
The DOT was on board with that idea last summer, urging the Coast Guard — which approves bridge heights — to let it build a 35-foot fixed bridge. A reasonable request.
So why are DOT officials now about to apply for a 55-foot monster bridge?
Last summer, state Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge told the Coast Guard that upstream of the Highway 41 bridge, the Wando shallows significantly and has no commercial traffic. In other words, it's not fit for big boats. In the three years before the bridge broke, there were only 34 requests to even open it.
The DOT found just two people upstream with boats that couldn't fit under a 35-foot span, and offered to buy them retractable masts — which is cheaper than the $4 million that 20 vertical feet of bridge would cost them.
Residents thought it was a done deal since Coast Guard officials at a public hearing suggested the state could apply for any height bridge it wanted. But there's more.
Barry Dragon, chief of the Coast Guard's bridge branch for these parts, says any bridge must ensure reasonable needs of navigation. The National Environmental Protection Act will not allow the government to disenfranchise anyone — boaters or upstream property owners. .
Now, it's possible the state could apply for a 35-foot bridge and prove that it won't be a problem, Dragon says.
“They could get it, but it could also go five or six years and they'd still have to build a 55-foot bridge,” Dragon says.
And that's the problem.
A bridge too high?
Jim Rozier, a DOT commissioner, says state officials are convinced the Coast Guard will not permit anything less than a 55-foot span, and won't risk a potential multi-year fight to find out for sure. “We don't have the luxury of time, not when it's a safety issue.”
So local governments have backed off their opposition to a tall bridge, and the state will likely apply for the 55-foot bridge in the next month. Approval could come before year's end.
So barring some miracle, Highway 41 will get a new bridge soon. It will be a monstrosity, the residents won't like it, and few government officials really favor it.
That's the way regulations work. Sometimes they make sense, and the preferences of regular folks are considered.
And sometimes we waste millions on a high bridge over a waterway to nowhere.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com or read his blog at blog.postandcourier.com/brians-blog.