Mount Pleasant resident Steve Rowe was surprised to hear last week that the S.C. Highway 41 bridge replacement project is underway after many years of delays.

He was even more surprised to learn that the $36 million bridge over the Wando River will be a span that’s 55 feet high, instead of the 35 feet preferred by the majority of residents and local officials.

“I lost my breath,” he said. “I thought, ‘Seriously? He just said that?’ I heard a few gasps in the crowd and a lot of what felt to me like stunned silence.”

Rowe, a residential real estate agent, was at a public meeting Tuesday to hear about plans for development of the 9,000-acre Cainhoy Plantation on Clements Ferry Road.

As people expressed concerns that the development will add traffic to the already overcrowded Clements Ferry Road, Wando resident Cliff Moore asked how a Clements Ferry widening project scheduled to start in 2015 would fit in with plans to replace the bridge, which is about 5 miles away.

“Actually I have good news on that one,” Berkeley County Councilman Tim Callanan answered. He then explained that the state Department of Transportation plans to award a contract for a 55-foot-high fixed span in February. The project is expected to take about three years. The bridge abuts Mount Pleasant but is in Berkeley County.

Rowe, Moore and others said that was the first time they heard that the project is moving forward with a 55-foot height.

“I believe that less than 10 percent of the public would have had any inkling that a final decision on that bridge height had been made,” Rowe said.

Moore agreed.

“A whole lot of people who live in Dunes West and Park West, their eyebrows are going to raise when they hear about this,” he said.

Officials with the state DOT said they believe a lower bridge would not have been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, the agency that determines bridge heights, and applying for a lower bridge would only delay the project.

“There was a big push from some of the locals for 35 feet, but we are convinced that we would not be successful at permitting a 35-foot-tall structure,” said Matt Lifsey, DOT project engineer.

And that’s the problem, said Paul Gawrych, former Mount Pleasant town councilman and member of the Charleston Area Transportation Study Committee.

“Nobody wants a 55-foot bridge,” said Gawrych, who is running for Town Council again. “But if we don’t agree to it, then we’re stuck with a bridge with big chunks of metal potentially falling off. So what do we do?”

River to nowhere

Since at least 1992, the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory has recommended replacement of the 2,000-foot span, built in 1939.

Everyone from area residents to local politicians, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and the state DOT agree that the bridge needs to be replaced.

In 2010, officials decided the best option was a low-profile bascule bridge similar to the current structure but it cost $10.5 million more than a fixed span structure. Two years later, the DOT commission said it could not afford the extra money to build that structure or the additional $11.6 million to maintain it over its lifetime.

After that, fearful that a higher bridge would bring additional noise and development, residents banded together to push for a bridge with a 35-foot clearance.

“A 55-foot bridge at that location is too tall and rather unnecessary,” Rowe said Friday. “(A lower span) is far more in keeping with the beautiful surroundings and the serene feel of that part of the upper Wando River.”

Mount Pleasant resident Marcia Rosenbert started a grassroots campaign called “Keep it Low” to ensure an “appropriately scaled” replacement.

Joseph Calandra, also of Mount Pleasant, wrote in a letter to the DOT in December that referring to the water underneath as the “Wando River” is wrong, “as this body of water is an estuary, not a river.” He said it’s not appropriate for large vessels because it does not have a navigable channel.

The river ends about 5 miles past the bridge, in the Francis Marion National Forest.

“It’s not like it’s leading to Johns Island or James Island,” Moore said. “It’s leading to the Francis Marion National Forest. It cannot be developed. Everybody around here just thinks a 55-foot bridge is overkill.”

Gawrych pointed to the Westmoreland Bridge on Interstate 526, over the Ashley River, which has a clearance of 35 feet. He believes that decision was made to hinder development up the Ashley near the historic gardens and plantations.

Lifsey said construction on that bridge started in 1981, and he doesn’t know what factors were considered.

“I asked that question because I thought it would get something moving and get people thinking,” Gawrych said.

Moving forward

The DOT and the Federal Highway Administration decided last year to pursue a 35-foot bridge to satisfy the community’s desires and because it would save the state about $3 million. The DOT even offered to buy retractable masts for two residents upstream who said they would be bound in because their sailboats wouldn’t fit under a lower bridge.

In June 2012, South Carolina Secretary of Transportation Robert J. St. Onge wrote to the Coast Guard that the lower span “would meet nearly all maritime needs and offer an acceptable balance with highway traffic needs.”

In December, Barry Dragon, director of the district bridge program for the Coast Guard, said the bridge needs to be high enough only to “meet the reasonable needs of navigation” and proposed a 120-day test to show how often the bridge opens, but officials balked because the bridge hasn’t opened since 2011 because of concerns that it will not close.

In March, he told The Post and Courier that a 35-foot bridge could be permitted, “but it could also go five or six years and they’d still have to build a 55-foot bridge.”

That’s when officials, noting that the current bridge is unsafe, conceded to the higher span.

“We got tired of fighting about it, and so we just said fine,” Berkeley County’s Callanan said.

It’s more important that the project “realigns what is arguably the most dangerous, most ridiculous intersection in the entire region, that suicide merge of Clements Ferry Road and 41,” Callanan said. It calls for a “T” intersection with a stop sign on Highway 41, he said.

With the project moving forward, some residents wonder now if the DOT planned to build a bigger bridge all along, despite residents’ desires.

“The point is, (the public) was in the dark,” Moore said. “I’m pretty sure that the public hearings were to placate people and make them feel good. It was all for show. It didn’t matter what we thought. It was going to stay that way regardless.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.