Gov. Henry McMaster told transportation officials Thursday to make part of eastbound Interstate 526 a two-way road, a temporary plan that could ease gridlock ignited by the shutdown of a Wando River bridge.
But local officials have expressed concerns about the effort's ripple effects on motorists going in two directions — rather than drivers on just the westbound side — which came to a halt after a broken cable in the James B. Edwards Bridge was discovered Monday.
The potential impacts of the switch remain a target of study by traffic engineers, but a letter from McMaster told the S.C. Department of Transportation to "develop and execute a plan."
"The hope is that the reversal of that lane will help ease the traffic that we’ve seen," the governor's spokesman, Brian Symmes, added. "The governor is absolutely mindful of the concerns. That's why all these agencies are involved."
Attempts to reach DOT spokesman Pete Poore for comment on the measure were not immediately successful, but a video posted by the agency on YouTube showed crews tearing up the grassy median of I-526 near the bridge to allow westbound motorists to cross to the other side. It was not clear when any switch would be put into place.
DOT Secretary Christy Hall told The Post and Courier on Tuesday that her agency had already started devising a plan to run traffic in two directions on the eastbound side of the Wando River bridge.
State authorities and officials from Mount Pleasant and Charleston discussed the idea during a conference Thursday morning where the concerns were voiced.
Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie said experts first had to decide whether emergency vehicles would fit along with two directions of traffic on I-526. The answer was yes.
The question that lingered at the end of the meeting was what methods would mitigate the risk of having opposing traffic on a road that everyone knows as a one-way interstate, Haynie said. It went unanswered.
Shortly afterward, the governor ordered the DOT to figure out a way to get it done.
Haynie said the town is on board.
"It's one of those things where no municipality wants to make the ultimate decision to do something that's so serious," he said. "You want to look at every possible risk. But by the governor basically ordering it, it was a relief to everybody that the decision was made at the highest level."
The DOT shuttered the western side of the twin spans after a weekly review found one of eight main cables tying together its concrete segments had snapped. The bridge's closure is expected to last until June 11, extending 20-minute rush-hour commutes into 45- to 90-minute journeys.
The I-526 crossover is one of several options being employed in hopes of pushing along traffic at peak times; one went into effect Thursday. By mid-afternoon, crews had set up traffic cones that split one lane into two lanes leading from the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge to Interstate 26. It was working, Haynie said after fielding a report of a motorist making it from Mount Pleasant to the Convention Center in North Charleston in 30 minutes during the evening rush hour.
For now, motorists are using U.S. Highway 17 and the Ravenel Bridge to get to Charleston. Another detour option takes them over S.C. Highway 41 and Clements Ferry Road, which leads to an unaffected portion of westbound I-526.
Symmes said the governor is confident that a scheme for splitting I-526 would be safe and keep traffic moving. It would require some sort of barrier — most likely orange cones — between the two directions of traffic on the eastbound span.
While the DOT was keeping an eye on both spans of the Wando River bridge for damaged cables, officials have revealed problems on only the westbound side.
"If there was an issue with the eastbound side," Symmes said, "people wouldn’t be traveling across it."
Charleston police Capt. Chip Searson, who attended Thursday's meeting involving local and state officials, said the discussion centered on whether the move would be an overall benefit or more harmful than helpful.
"Whatever you do, it will impact someplace else," Searson said. "You cut those three (eastbound) lanes down to one lane, it's going to impact something."
McMaster's letter asked Hall and the DOT to keep his office informed of her progress on the work.
"We certainly hope there are no problems," Haynie said. "Anybody using the reversed lane ... please drive with the utmost caution."