I-526 bridge over Wando River joins long state list of deficient bridges

The state Department of Transportation shut down the westbound Interstate 526 bridge over the Wando River last week because its main support cable has broken. File/Staff

South Carolina spends plenty of money on infrastructure — and if you believe that, Charleston has a bridge to sell you.

Cheap.

Right now, the Lowcountry is gridlocked. There are only two ways to get between Mount Pleasant and the area's two job centers — and one of them is shut down. The state came in last week and closed the westbound Interstate 526 bridge over the Wando River.

Broken support cable — bad news.

The 70,000 cars that use the bridge every day have been diverted to the Ravenel Bridge, which already had an average daily traffic count of 97,000.

Add those numbers together and you get … let’s see — ah yes, a two-hour commute.

Sounds miserable, huh? Most people across the state say, “Glad that’s not us.”

Yeah, but it could be.

In January, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association released a study that said 10 percent of South Carolina’s 9,341 bridges are structurally deficient.

If the state Department of Transportation pulled a 526 and closed them all, Columbia would pretty much shut down. One of the suspect bridges is on I-126 leading into the city, and another is on I-26 just north of the I-77 interchange.

Why all the bum bridges? Well, the state has a fault line.

It’s in Columbia, at Assembly and Gervais.

Real issues?

The Wando River bridge has a cracked main support cable, and it’s only about 30 years into a 70-year life expectancy.

By South Carolina standards, it’s practically a baby.

Of the 25 most-traveled structurally deficient bridges in the state, 11 of them are in Lexington or Richland counties — some of them dating back to President Dwight Eisenhower, who coincidentally started the interstate system.

A few of our bridges were around for, and before, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

There's a logical explanation here. South Carolina has the fourth-largest road system in the nation, yet, even with that new gas tax, we spend less on maintenance than almost any other state.

Politicians tell you our roads and bridges are falling apart because of waste, fraud and abuse at the DOT. It’s pretty to think so.

But that's pandering. The Legislative Audit Council pored through the DOT’s books just two years ago and found no significant waste, fraud or abuse.

Some officials also claim restructuring DOT to give the governor more power would fix this. It might help, but without more money we're just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Even though road revenue has increased by 10 percent in the past decade, construction costs are up 34 percent. South Carolina isn’t keeping up with inflation. Or increases in repairs caused by growing congestion.

But politicians would rather talk about historical monuments, NFL players and nebulous stuff that doesn’t cost anything. There's part of the problem.

South Carolina roads have fallen into disrepair because voters don't want to pay more, and politicians like to give 'em what they want.

Well, you get what you pay for.

In this case, gridlock.

Years of neglect

The recent gas tax increase was the first since 1987, way back during the Reagan administration.

Road repairs began falling behind a few years later and, when the recession hit, infrastructure spending tanked with the housing market.

The new gas tax, which many groused about, is supposed to bring in about $600 million annually. At that rate, it’ll only take 67 years to tackle an estimated $40 billion in road repairs needed statewide.

Not counting the 34 percent construction price increases every decade, or factoring in new problems that will develop in that time.

So it’s kind of a drop in the asphalt bucket.

Even repairing the 1,569 bridges the state admits have problems would cost an estimated $865 million. That figure doesn't include the Wando bridge.

The DOT isn’t perfect, and this Wando bridge fiasco may wind up being their fault. But Christy Hall and the DOT can only work with the resources they get from the Statehouse. And too often, powerful lawmakers divert DOT resources to rural secondary roads, which further hurts major cities' traffic woes.

So, the problem is a huge, old road system, a state growing too fast to keep up with infrastructure needs and politicians more worried about re-election than the guy who has to get up at 4 a.m. to make his shift at Boeing.

State officials like to tell folks the state has plenty of road money — it just isn’t being spent correctly.

That's the modern-day equivalent of “I’ve got a bridge to sell you.”

And it's why we can't have nice things, or safe bridges.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.