Last-minute push on to redesign S.C. 41 bridge

The existing S.C.Highway 41 Bridge is narrow and hostile to bikers and pedestrians. One state Transportation Commissioner saying he “wouldn’t dare” walk or bike across it.

State highway officials say the new S.C. Highway 41 bridge over the Wando River will designed so pedestrians and bicyclists also can use it.

But Lowcountry cycling advocates and other elected officials say there’s a big difference between the bike and pedestrian access currently envisioned for the bridge — and what should be built.

That issue — and the lingering debate over whether the new bridge should be 55 feet tall or only 35 feet tell — is coming to a head right as the state Department of Transportation prepares to sign a design-build contract next month.

DOT officials met with Charleston, Mount Pleasant officials, as well as U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, state Sen. Larry Grooms and others Friday morning to discuss the project’s status and what should happen next.

Tom Bradford of Charleston Moves, a cycling advocacy group, said it’s unclear if the meeting will prompt any change of plans.

“The big question is: Is the political will there to stop it and redesign it?” he said. “We’re past the 11th hour. There’s no question.”

The current design calls for a 55-foot-tall bridge that would have two 5½-foot-wide raised sidewalks and a breakdown lane that cyclists could use — much like the design of the Paul Gelegotis Bridge that over the Stono River between James and Johns islands or the raised sidewalk on the southern side of the new Ben Sawyer Bridge.

And Bradford said that’s a far cry from the gold standard — a single 10-foot-wide bike and pedestrian path like that built on the 2005 Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley agreed and said he has sent a letter to DOT officials asking them to reconsider.

“It would be a grave mistake to build a bridge there without a 10-foot bike-pedestrian path,” Riley said. “The two 5-foot sidewalks are just not adequate for these times and don’t really provide comfortable and safe bike and pedestrian travel.”

Bradford said the bridge’s breakdown lanes could be re-striped for car traffic at some future point, and most cyclists find it too dangerous to try to ride on a 5-foot-wide elevated sidewalk.

“If somehow your front wheel goes off of it, you’re down in the face of a car coming down on you at 50 mph,” he said, adding that both Mount Pleasant and Berkeley County plan on 10-foot wide bike-ped paths leading to the new bridge.

Mount Pleasant Town Councilman Paul Gawrych said DOT officials made it clear they’re marching on until they get another directive, and local officials may reach out to Gov. Nikki Haley to enlist her help in slowing things down. The highway commission is set to vote Feb. 20 on the 41 bridge contract.

Gawrych and Riley said it would be worth delaying the project for 18 months to two years in order to get it right, considering that the bridge’s lifespan is expected to be 75 years.

First District Highway Commissioner Jim Rozier said the DOT’s staff will look at whether it’s possible to redesign the bridge’s deck, but he also said what’s currently proposed is better than what’s there now.

“I wouldn’t dare walk across that bridge right now, much less ride a bicycle,” he said.

Rozier said the state has received a $30.4 million bid from an established design-build group, and he would like to see it approved next month because the state doesn’t want to have to redo its permitting or bidding work.

“Quite frankly, we wouldn’t have been surprised with (a) $40 million (low bidder),” he said. “The last thing we want to do is go back out for bid.”

Any delay regarding the bike and pedestrian access also would help those seeking to lower the bridge’s height.

The state said the U.S. Coast Guard has required a height of 55 feet, even though there is little navigable river upstream from the bridge. A delay would give local leaders more time to work with the state’s congressional delegation to try to get the Coast Guard to change its mind.

“If we’re going to have a delay to get it right for the lanes for the bike and ped, then we’re going to get the height right, too,” Gawrych said. “We’ve got life. I saw the door shutting on me on the height, but it’s not shut.”

Sanford said he hopes to work with Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham to meet with the Coast Guard and Federal Highway Administration officials on the 55-foot height, which he says is unpopular, unnecessarily expensive and defies common sense.

Sanford noted the new Folly Road bridges to Folly Beach are lower even though they see much more boat traffic.

“I think everybody is frustrated because it’s like the Rubik’s cube where everybody keeps getting different answers,” Sanford said, adding he is on the House Transportation Committee and Coast Guard subcommittee on Homeland Security.

But Rozier said the state has been trying to convince the federal government to allow a lower height for a decade — without any luck.

“It’s going to be 55 feet, and I think that’s ridiculous,” Rozier said. “If they (the state’s congressional delegation) have got a Hail Mary pass to throw, they better throw it quick. I’m all for them doing it.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.