Put bridge to Hilton Head on list of top SC priorities

May 20, 2010 

Maybe the state highway commission should get in a boat and travel back in time to 1974 to fully appreciate what the bridge to the mainland means to Hilton Head Island.

The commission would have found the bridge knocked out of service by a barge, and a pontoon bridge strung through the water to enable a trickle of vehicles on and off the island each day.

That misery lasted for six weeks. It was one of the sparks for eventual incorporation of the island, because volunteers who coordinated solutions for the plethora of problems often found themselves feeling marooned in more ways than one.

Flash forward to today, when traffic over the bridge has mushroomed to an average of 44,300 to 57,800 vehicles per day. The bridge is the primary artery for an economy that drives the region. The Town of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County wisely paid recently for an independent study of the oldest of the four spans that link the island to the mainland.

The study concludes that beams and girders supporting the eastbound lanes of the Karl S. Bowers Bridge are deteriorating and need major repairs or replacement.

This two-lane bridge over Mackays Creek -- with the lanes taking traffic to the island -- was built in 1956. It is the only remaining portion of the original crossing to Hilton Head. It had a life expectancy of 50 years.

To hear that its replacement might be needed soon should be no surprise. But maybe it is. The South Carolina Department of Transportation has no immediate plans to repair or replace this older portion of the Bowers Bridge.

The urgency of repairs is ranked against the needs of the state's 9,188 other bridges. And one out of every five bridges in the state is considered deficient.

The Hilton Head bridge's deterioration does not impose an immediate risk of failure, the study says. Still, its replacement needs to be in the planning stages.

Money, of course, is a problem. The state legislature needs to enable more money to flow to the DOT. For years, studies and comparisons have shown South Carolina to be falling woefully behind in meeting growing transportation demands.

We understand that many bridges across the state need help. But as we learned the hard way in 1974, not all bridges are created equal. Some carry a much heavier load than others.

When a vibrant economy depends almost exclusively on a bridge, the state better consider it a high priority.

We hope that Craig Forrest of Sun City Hilton Head can make that case as he joins the state highway commission as the representative from the 2nd Congressional District.

His election to that post by the state legislature is a great coup, considering that the bulk of the population and power in the gerrymandered district is in Columbia. Forrest brings a lifetime of roads and bridges experience to the job, and its first member from Beaufort County in 16 years.

Surely, he won't need to travel back in time to understand the importance of the bridges to Hilton Head.

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