LANCASTER — State officials were on a routine inspection when they came upon the wooden beam shattered beneath the bridge in Lancaster County.
The loss of the wooden support sank parts of the roadway above by more than two inches, leaving state officials with no choice but to close the bridge that carried more than 5,800 motorists every day, 60 miles north of Columbia.
School buses and ambulances were rerouted. Residents found another way to work. Cars and trucks were diverted around for eight months until the bridge could be reopened in March.
“It was a little bit of a difficult detour,” said Jeff Catoe, the county’s public works director.
A snapped cable and the closure of the Wando River bridge along I-526 near Charleston for more than three weeks refocused attention onto the condition of more than 8,400 bridges that span rivers, roads, ravines and train tracks throughout the state.
The Wando bridge, however, is nothing like the average South Carolina bridge that is in need of repair or replacement.
Most of the bridges in poor condition in South Carolina more closely resemble the small bridge in Lancaster County than the six-lane highway over the Wando River.
The vast majority of the state's more problematic bridges are not on the interstate highway system but in the state's more rural counties, according to a Post and Courier analysis of five years of national bridge inspection data for South Carolina.
Counties like Lee, Bamberg, Aiken and Lancaster over the past five years routinely had the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges — meaning the bridges' road decks, support piers or foundations were in bad condition. That doesn't mean those structures are unsafe, but it does make them more likely to be closed by inspectors or have limits placed on heavy truck traffic.
Urban counties in the Upstate around Greenville and in the Lowcountry around Charleston generally rank in the middle of the pack. Richland County shot into the top five in recent years after the devastating 2015 flood damaged bridges.
Florence County — home to the state's most powerful politician, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman — has the lowest percentage of bad bridges in South Carolina.
S.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said the need for repairing so many bridges in rural — or what used to be rural — areas stems from construction projects in the 1960s when a large number of bridges were built with wooden foundations and supports.
More than 1,700 of those wooden structures are still standing today.
"The vast majority of those older, 1960s-era bridges were built in the farm-to-market areas of the state, so you see a tremendous number of bridges in the rural communities," Hall said.
Over the next decade, the Department of Transportation plans to spend $1.5 billion to replace and repair bridges on South Carolina's sprawling transportation system. That is expected to cut the number of structurally deficient bridges in the state network by more than 60 percent.
All of that, however, depends largely on new tax money that is just starting to flow in.
Every closed bridge matters
Statewide, more than 740 bridges were in poor structural condition as of June 1, according to data provided by the S.C. Department of Transportation.
The average bridge on that list handles around 4,000 vehicles per day and is roughly half a football field in length — a far cry from the mile-and-a-half-long spans over the Wando River that carry more than 70,000 cars and trucks per day.
But that doesn't make those smaller bridges, scattered throughout South Carolina, less of an inconvenience for local communities when they are closed or shut to truck traffic.
State lawmakers representing rural parts of the state say they understand how vital the Wando bridge is — serving as a linchpin for the Port of Charleston. But they also don't want state officials to overlook the dilapidated bridges that shoulder the weight of several thousand cars per day, just because they aren't in one of the fastest growing regions of the state.
Sen. Thomas McElveen, a Democrat who represents part of Lee County, wasn't aware that nearly one out of seven of the county's bridges were rated as structurally deficient this year. Still, when the Wando bridge was closed last month, he openly questioned the state of the bridges in his district.
"Color me not surprised at all," McElveen said.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he can remember smaller bridges being out in every one of the five counties that he represents. And it often takes months, not weeks, to get them repaired, he said.
"When they are out, the detours in those areas are significant," Massey said. "It has an impact on schools, the people who live nearby and any businesses in the area."
The Department of Transportation, Hall said, doesn't make spending decisions based on politics or take into account whether the bridge is in a city or on a back country road.
The agency uses a mix of criteria, like a structure's engineering ratings, how far cars would have to be detoured and the total traffic on the roadway to decide what bridges get repaired or replaced first.
Sen. Greg Gregory, a Republican who represents parts of Lancaster and York counties, said he doesn't like to think about the issue of fixing bridges in terms of rural versus urban. He thinks the state should fix all of them.
"I fall down on the side that we need more revenue," Gregory said.
'Three decades of decay'
Since 2010, the Department of Transportation has significantly reduced the the number of state-owned bridges in poor condition by about 275.
It's a huge improvement over the prior decade, when the state consistently had more than 1,000 bridges in need of serious repair or replacement.
"We’ve said all along, it’s taken us three decades of decay to get the system where it is," Hall said. "It’s going to take us time to turn the system around."
State lawmakers and state officials credit the improved numbers in recent years to legislative changes in 2013 and 2016 that sent money from the sales tax on vehicles flowing into the Department of Transportation for the first time in state history.
They also expect the gas tax increase passed by the state Legislature last year to keep that momentum going. That law already increased the state's gas tax for the first time in 30 years by two cents a gallon and will phase in another 10-cent increase over the next five years.
Packaged with additional sales taxes on vehicles and an increase in vehicle registration fees, that legislation is expected to bring in an additional $600 million annually for road and bridge improvements.
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, a Republican from Rock Hill who led the effort to increase the gas tax, said lawmakers should not have waited so long to increase funding for the state's roads.
“Unfortunately for South Carolina and her citizens and her roadways, we’ve been operating in a deficiency for years,” Simrill said. “Everything we passed is working. Does it happen overnight? Absolutely not.”
Joe Cranney and Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.