Four-year-old bridge to get costly repairs
by Tony Bartelme
Though only four years old, the Wando River bridge already has a bad case of arthritis.
Aluminum joints connecting the concrete spans are breaking and will need to be replaced soon, said Harry Mills, district bridge engineer for the state Department of Transportation.
The joints have nothing to do with the structural integrity of the bridge, Mills said. In other words, the bridge isn't going to collapse.
But fixing the bum joints will cost several hundred thousand dollars and cause traffic delays for the next six months.
"This is unusual," Mills said. "Normally you don't have to replace joints on a new bridge like this."
Arching over the Wando, the bone-white bridge connects Daniel Island to Mount Pleasant and is part of the $275 million Mark Clark Expressway, Charleston's newest freeway. The Wando bridge itself cost $32 million and was opened to traffic in 1991.
Four weeks ago, a state inspector noticed a hole on the Mount Pleasant side, Mills said. Additional inspections uncovered problems with the bridge's joints.
The joints are made out of aluminum plates, springs and rubber. "The joints don't hold up the bridge," Mills said. But they're important, nonetheless.
Placed between the concrete spans, the joints allow cars to travel over gaps in the bridge when it expands or contracts.
At a temperature of 20 degrees, for instance, the concrete contracts, creating 16-inch gaps between the spans. At 110 degrees, with the concrete expanding, the gaps are just 6 inches.
The joints bridge these gaps, and if they fail, they can make a hole that might cause accidents.
"It's serious. We're going to have to fix it - no question about it," Mills said.
Transportation department workers put up signs that say "Bump" and placed steel plates across two 44-foot-long joints, but all 16 joints on the bridge have to be replaced.
Mills said engineers will meet with contractors on an emergency basis to speed up the repair process. During the repairs, at least one lane on the four-lane bridge will be shut down.
Highway engineers aren't sure what caused the joints to crack and break.
Holding a foot-long aluminum plate and a broken spring, Mills said heavy truck traffic to and from the State Ports Authority's Wando Welch Terminal might have played a role.
"But I expected this bridge to handle that traffic. The older Grace and Pearman bridges have joints that handled it for years."
Mills said he doesn't know who will pay for the repairs, adding that the issue may end up in court.
"The name of the game in the construction business these days is everyone wants to sue everyone."
After the bridge was completed, for instance, the transportation department and its contractor, T.L. James Construction, sued each other.
T.L. James said design problems caused additional costs and delays. The department eventually shelled out $ 4.9 million to settle the lawsuit.
The bridge over the Wando River isn't the only problem on the Mark Clark Expressway.
Truckers say the section in North Charleston between Rivers Avenue and the Cooper River is so bumpy it's a safety hazard.
"I heard that three trailers broke in half because of the bumps," said a North Charleston truck driver, Robert Bates, while driving on that stretch last week.
As he spoke, his rig jumped up and down, sometimes violently, as it passed over dips and bumps on the elevated highway.
Earlier this week, U.S Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., wrote Transportation Commission chairman H.B. "Buck" Limehouse, asking that the department investigate the truckers' complaints.
Limehouse said inspectors will study the highway's condition and see what might be done to improve it.
Mills said the bumps have been there since the highway was built.
"I'll tell you straight up that work on that particular job wasn't what we would have liked."
The department and the contractor, Traylor Brothers Inc., are still embroiled in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over that project.
Mills said he inspected the stretch recently and found no settling or cracking or other indications that the highway is getting worse.
He said the bridge is structurally sound.
"It could be smoothed out," he said. But that job could cost millions of dollars. "Can I use that money on more important projects? I sure could."
Limehouse said that the truckers seem to be the only ones complaining about the bumps, and that if the bumps are a safety hazard, a special truck speed limit might be enacted.
It's not the first time people have complained about shoddy workmanship on the Mark Clark Expressway and its bridges.
Even as it was built, construction workers alleged that the work on the highway was poorly done and that some employees were drinking on the job and taking drugs.
The contractors and highway department denied many of these allegations.
But Mills acknowledged that some stretches of the Mark Clark Expressway are better than others.
"You have good contractors and you have bad contractors," he said. "A highway is like anything you buy. Sometimes you get what you want and sometimes you don't."