The Wando River bridge is the link that connects Charleston region's busiest shipping terminal and largest office campuses to some of its biggest suburbs — and now it's the roadblock that separates them.
The U.S. Interstate 526 span now faces a partial closure that could drag on for weeks, throwing sand into the gears of the Lowcountry's largest economic engines and complicating the daily commutes for thousands of workers.
For now, employers are trying to bob and weave with the unfolding and unexpected traffic mess. Major employers on and around Daniel Island say they're trying to be flexible as their staffs navigate the snarl. But they haven't implemented plans to mitigate the impact — not yet, anyway.
That's true for big businesses like Blackbaud and Benefitfocus, which employ well more than 1,000 employees at their Daniel Island offices. The two technology companies say they're encouraging workers to adjust their schedules to account for the heavier traffic, and they're open to having people work from home.
"We have asked employees to be patient, allow more time if possible and travel to work as best they can," said John Mistretta, Blackbaud's executive vice president for human resources.
The same held for small firms, too. Daniel Island Development Co., where president Matt Sloan said his real estate staff looped around Mount Pleasant to avoid new commuting choke points like Clements Ferry Road. The crush of vehicles weaving through that corridor, which is notoriously slow on a normal day, brought traffic grinding to a halt.
The Port of Charleston, one of the largest drivers of traffic in the region, was also taking a wait-and-see approach. The port is opening its gates earlier and keeping them open several hours later so truckers have time to work their way in and out of its two primary shipping terminals.
In the latest notice to the industry posted on its website, the State Ports Authority warned that "this is a dynamic situation and plans may change as circumstances dictate."
In addition to the extended workweek hours, the agency is opening its gates Saturday and Sunday to accommodate drivers.
The James B. Edwards Bridge is a primary traffic artery for the Wando Welch Terminal, the SPA’s largest container hub. After the westbound lanes were shut down Monday, many of the trucks hauling port cargo started taking U.S. Highway 17 and the Ravenel Bridge after exiting the terminal.
“It is too early at this point to assess impacts of the issue, but in the near-term the port is focused on supporting the flow of cargo ... through expanded gate hours," SPA chief executive Jim Newsome said in a written statement. "We will continue to monitor the situation throughout the week and are striving to balance the overall impacts on traffic with the need to service our customers.”
Drivers for North Charleston trucking business Bulldog Hiway Express move up to 600 containers a day to and from the port, said Phil Byrd, president and CEO. He said the industry was appreciative of the SPA's decision to keep its terminals open longer for drivers.
"I don't know what more they can do," he said.
But Byrd was worried if the westbound lanes are out of commission for an extended period.
“When you restrict our ability to generate productivity, you impact drivers' earnings and customers," he said. "It just bottlenecks."
In Mount Pleasant, Mayor Will Haynie said he would call big employers in town and ask them to give workers more flexibility in their hours while the bridge is repaired. Town government will loosen its work schedules, too, he said.
"Modify your commute time and leave early — 15 to 20 minutes can make a big difference," Haynie said in a statement.
Workers were likewise waiting to see what would happen to the region’s reshaped traffic patterns. More people at Benefitfocus and the government consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, for instance, decided to work from home.
Elizabeth Buske, a Booz Allen vice president who runs the company’s software-development office on Clements Ferry Road, said several employees were worried that congested roads would keep them from picking up their children on time, so they signed in remotely.
Buske, who gave up on her Tuesday commute a couple of times before settling for an hour-long drive to the office, said that the closed section of bridge reminded her the heavy snowfall that brought Charleston to a standstill in January. Close to half of Booz Allen's 400 workers worked from home Tuesday, and they weren't expected to trek into the office Wednesday.
"If it's like the snow event, after a day or two, people wanted to figure out how to get back to the office because they really were tired of being in their house," Buske said.
Mike White maintains his commercial real estate office, Charleston Industrial, on Daniel island and owns two retail businesses there as well.
He said it’s too early to tell what the effect will be on business, but he planned to avoid heading toward Charleston if he could help it.
“I have limited my activity to the airport and the North Area,” he said. “I’m choosing not to go downtown.”
He also said the coffee shop Starbucks and wine store Bin 526 that he owns might even benefit from the highway shutdown.
“It might help us if people choose not to go downtown or Mount Pleasant,” White said.