Bridging the Gap

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THOSE WHO COMPLAIN ABOUT TRAFFIC COMING ON AND OFF HILTON HEAD ISLAND SHOULD BE AWARE THAT THINGS COULD BE WORSE.

At least the original eastbound portion of the former James F. Byrnes Bridge — the first slice of concrete that joins the mainland to Hilton Head Island — is still standing.

Built in 1956 as a two-lane prelude to the adjoining toll swing bridge over Skull Creek, the bridge — now known as the Karl Bowers Bridge that rises over Mackay Creek before depositing cars on Jenkins Island, home to Pinckney Wildlife Refuge, has been classified as “structurally deficient” by the Federal Highway Administration. Inspections of the bridge in 2008 and 2010 discovered structural bridge flaws.

The local bridge has plenty of company statewide: Of the 9,344 bridges in South Carolina, 11 percent — or 1,004 — have earned the same alarming classification because one or more key bridge elements such as the deck, superstructure or substructure is considered to be in “poor or worse condition.” Another 9 percent of bridges statewide have been deemed “functionally obsolete.”

The problems with the bridge to Hilton Head have not gone unnoticed by officials with the Town of Hilton Head, Beaufort County, the state and the Lowcountry Council of Governments, who have been aware of the bridge’s weaknesses for years. Plans to repair the problems have been gaining traction recently— though officials say the bridge is still safe for regular use.

“I don’t think we’re talking about a closure or failure,” said Hilton Head town manager Steve Riley. “It just means the end of its useful life, and you need to get on with it.”

Still, some of the 55,000 drivers who cross the bridge daily remain concerned about its safety, though county officials are quick to reassure them.

“There are no issues driving on it,” added Beaufort County deputy administrator Josh Gruber.

The 50-year design life of the oldest of the four bridge spans expired 11 years ago.

“Everybody is aware that the bridge is not adequate to serve the future,” said Ginnie Kozak, planning director for the LCOG, which connects local governments in four counties with state and federal programs to coordinate regional development.

The state Department of Transportation has budgeted about $44 million for repairing the island’s oldest span. But doing that without repairing any other spans on or off the island else was a short-lived idea that quickly fell out of favor.

A glance into the past may have helped nudge today’s governmental doers to keep their eyes toward developing a bigger-picture mind-set.

In 1974, a barge slammed into the pilings of the $1.5 million swing bridge, which was replaced by a pontoon bridge for years to keep traffic flowing to and from the island. A four-lane fixed span bridge was built in 1982 and re-dedicated in honor of J. Wilton Graves, a former state legislator and early development shaker on the island.

“They (the state) had a plan to replace (the original span) in time with two lanes, and the county, with support of other local governments and through urging by the Lowcountry Area Transportation Study, a study of the bigger picture,” Riley said. “Don’t put two lanes back; let’s talk about a longer-range plan.”

It wasn’t a difficult job to convince officials to do just that.

“The thought is, if they’re going to the time and expense and essentially driver inconvenience in replacing one of the spans, maybe we should look at doing them all at the same time,” Gruber said. “Even though the other bridges, from an age standpoint, aren’t at the end of their useful life.”

The current concept of long-term improvements to ease traffic congestion and either replace, repair or widen the 1-mile-long bridge and connecting points on U.S. 278 to and from the island has focused on a 4-mile corridor project from Squire Pope Road on Hilton Head to Moss Creek on the mainland. By all estimates, the price tag on such an ambitious project could top $200 million, but the source of funding has not been determined.

“We’re not treating this as several individual projects; we’re looking at this as a whole corridor that is in need of improvements,” Kozak said. “We’re not doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that…You don’t replace a bridge and not deal with the highways connecting it. And what’s the bridge going to be? How many lanes, will it have a bicycle lane? We don’t know what those things will be. We’re looking at this as a comprehensive approach to transportation improvements.”

When the 2010 Census classified the Hilton Head/Bluffton area as a “small urban area” because of its population of more than 50,000, federal regulations required that a Metropolitan Planning Organization be formed to address transportation issues. In turn, LATS was created in 2013 under the auspices of the LCOG, and Kozak serves as staff representative. LATS MPO administers the federal funding.

The projected cost of about $3 million for a planning, engineering and environmental study to explore widening or replacing the bridges could take three years. The county, through an agreement with LATS, would commit $2 million.

SCDOT, which is actively reviewing contractors for the environmental permitting that is first on the action agenda, will select the contractor and be responsible for the project management, Gruber said.

The list of options developed in this phase will be reviewed by the state, county, LATS and other entities. Subsequent projects will be undertaken jointly based on a collaborative agreement between parties, Gruber said. Public hearings also will be scheduled.

“We’re bringing in the experts to find out what it will cost, how it should be phased, and how to solve the environmental issues,” Kozak said.

The lengthy process getting from here to there is very fluid, and there is no timetable for completion.

 “There is no hard and fast deadline by which we have to have this done,” Gruber said. “We don’t see the situation getting any better. It’s not going to get better unless we get things done.”

Whether the bridges are replaced or repaired, Kozak wants the improvements to “last for 30 years.”

Maybe three decades from now, some attention might be paid to what Riley calls a “pipedream” of an idea: Build a bridge across Port Royal Sound from Beaufort to the vicinity of Hilton Head Island Airport.

That idea has been floating around the Lowcountry for years; Riley thinks it might have been suggested by a Sun City resident or others who were tired of seeing vehicles from Beaufort rumbling along S.C. 170 past their front doors.

And while it’s a nice idea, Gruber said, “at this point in time, there is no serious consideration being given on that. I don’t know if it would ever be formally reviewed.”

What is more realistic has been the long-standing dream of providing an alternative traffic corridor to extend Bluffton Parkway westward to Interstate 95.

“The flyover — the $45 million project that opened last year to connect the parkway to the bridge — was one piece of the overall jigsaw puzzle,” Gruber said. “And that overall jigsaw puzzle is efficiently getting people from I-95 to Hilton Head and back. The flyover has successfully diverted a substantial amount of traffic off of U.S. 278 and allows an efficient flow through the Bluffton area. It’s one piece at a time.”