When state inspectors spotted the rupture of a key cable on the Wando River bridge Monday, they didn't hesitate to shut down the span and divert traffic. After all, they had been keeping close watch on the vital bridge for months and conducting weekly inspections to make sure problems with the cables didn't turn into a dire situation.
But that all came as news to officials in Charleston-area communities that depend on the bridge to move commuters and valuable cargo. They said the Department of Transportation gave them no inkling of problems with the James B. Edwards Bridge before abruptly shutting it down Monday afternoon as thousands of motorists prepared to take to the roadways for the rush-hour commute.
“According to our staff, looking back through time, the town was not informed," said Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie, whose town sits at the eastern base of the span.
Haynie and others were caught off guard by the bridge closure, with no firm plan in place to accommodate the massive traffic shift that left commuters fuming along snarled roads as their short drives turned into hours-long slogs.
As local officials attempted to make do on the fly, the hits kept coming. Shortly after announcing Wednesday that the bridge would be out of commission for a full month, transportation officials let on that they had been monitoring the cables for breakage for at least 16 years. By Thursday, a state senator was sounding the alarm that engineers had lost confidence in the safety of the bridge and that it might have to be torn down and replaced.
The news seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving local officials puzzled as to why they were kept in the dark about what appeared to be chronic problems with a major span that was supposed to have at least another two decades of life in it. But they weren't alone. Gov. Henry McMaster also didn’t know about the problem until the cable snapped, spokesman Brian Symmes said.
“The governor became aware of the issue on Monday,” Symmes said. “For any concerns prior to that, the DOT is the right place to talk to.”
DOT spokesman Pete Poore did not answer questions from The Post and Courier as to why the agency delayed notifying other officials about the bridge's ailments.
But Deputy Secretary for Engineering Leland Colvin said Friday that the agency finds things on "pretty much every (bridge) inspection report that we have." But only when a specific maintenance issue is expected to affect travel does the DOT contact the area authorities, he said.
"We coordinate locally ... once we have an impact to traffic," Colvin said.
State Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island, is among those inflamed by the week's developments. The bridge is in her district, and Mace said she's worried about the safety of sending people over the span, given that the cables supporting the 1½-mile-long structure should have lasted for 70 years but gave out in 30. Though two cables that have had issues are both on the westbound side, she's troubled by the revelation this week that transportation officials had begun inspecting both sides of the span daily, a possible indication of deeper troubles, she said.
"This is serious, and people should be outraged," she said. "The more I learn the more questions I have, and I'm not going to stop until I get to the bottom of it. What did they know and when did they know it?"
Former Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page, who was in office in 2016 when another cable suffered damage and caused inspections to increase, said she wasn’t notified by state officials of either issue. She also was on the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Government’s executive committee — but didn’t hear about it there either.
If she had, the town could have more actively planned for a closure.
“Never as mayor was I personally advised they had stepped up inspections or had great concerns. That’s why there was no pre-planning to deal with it,” said Page, who was mayor until November.
Former Councilmen Nickels and Paul Gawrych, also in office until November, echoed that.
“During my four years on council, I cannot recall hearing one word about this,” Nickels said.
City of Charleston officials said they too were caught flat-footed by this week's developments.
“I had no knowledge of anything like that,” said Charleston Police Capt. Chip Searson, who oversees the department's traffic division. “Nobody has ever said, ‘What are you going to do if a cable breaks on the Wando bridge?’”
Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who stepped down in 2016 after 40 years in office, said problems developed with the $32.1 million bridge's aluminum expansion joints about four years after it opened in 1991, but those were repaired and he'd heard of no serious problems since — until this week. Surprised by the news, he called his longtime city transportation director to make sure he hadn't missed something. No, he was told, this wasn't something that had crossed their desks.
"We were not made aware of any concerns at all," Riley said. "There were no warning signs that there were any structural deficiencies with the bridge. It wasn't something that was raised."
Chance to plan?
Riley said he's not an engineer and he's been out of office for two years, so he didn't want to dissect or criticize the DOT's handling of the episode. But he and others acknowledged that an early warning might have given officials a head start on planning for the resulting traffic problems, sparing commuters some headaches.
“From my perspective, we would be doing pretty much what we are doing now but obviously under much less pressure," said Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, who dispatched deputies to help with traffic control. "If we had been given a heads-up we would have been able to sit down and think through the alternatives first."
City and county officials weren't the only ones caught by surprise.
Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the State Ports Authority, said he didn't learn of the shutdown until after it occurred, disrupting truck traffic even as big container ships brought more cargo for them to haul. That's despite the fact that DOT Secretary Christy Hall is an ex-officio member of the authority’s board of directors and highway department officials often sit in on board meetings by telephone.
“I was going on a business trip and I found out about it as they were closing the door to the plane on Monday,” Newsome said. “So I ended up going to Atlanta and I said, ‘You know what, I’m coming back to Charleston.’ So I turned around and came back.”
Newsome said the DOT “has been very communicative with us” since the bridge closure but the authority had no prior indication that the Transportation Department had any concerns about the bridge or that it was being inspected on a weekly basis.
“We didn’t have any advance notice on this at all,” he said.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said now isn’t the time to ask the DOT when it knew about the problem because the agency is so short-staffed that it can’t do two things at once: answer questions and fix the bridge.
He had backed legislative proposals, such as allowing more gambling in South Carolina, that would boost revenue to better fund the DOT, he said, lamenting that other lawmakers had shot down the measures.
But he, too, said he had never heard of the problem with the Wando River bridge.
“We as lawmakers should share the responsibility for this — the ones who want the DOT to do more with less,” he said. “If you’re restricted on the number of employees you have to do the job, then things like this will happen.”
Jennifer Berry Hawes, David Wren and David Slade contributed to this report.