Work on a new U.S. 17 bridge between Jasper County and Savannah could begin early next year, according to Georgia transportation officials.
The state's Department of Transportation awaits one environmental permit before construction can start on a new span.
"At this juncture, the project is scheduled to be bid in March 2013, provided we receive our final salt-marsh credit permit from the state of Georgia," Georgia DOT spokeswoman Jill Nagel said last week.
The 58-year-old Back River Bridge is considered safe to cross but is "structurally deficient," according to a 2011 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report. More than 19,000 vehicles cross it each day.
Construction on the $14.75 million replacement is expected to take between 24 and 30 months and will result in a new, two-lane bridge with 8-foot-wide "bikeable" shoulders. Deceleration lanes will be built on both sides of the bridge, which links Hutchinson Island with Jasper County.
The bridge will be built beside the existing one and stand 3 feet taller. Nagel says the existing bridge will remain open during construction, and effects on traffic will be "minimal."
Construction will require filling 1.65 acres of tidal wetlands and the temporary clearing of one-third of an acre of wetlands, according to the Army Corps, which issued a permit for the project in October.
South Carolina and Georgia are partners on the bridge project. Georgia is managing the work and paying 90 percent of the cost. South Carolina is covering the remaining amount.
"We are tied in to what they are doing, and we are in the loop," said S.C. Department of Transportation project manager Brent Rewis. "But from our end, we are good to go."
The Back River Bridge, which has no emergency lane, has been the scene of several major accidents over the years. In March 2011, a cement truck overturned on the span, killing the driver. Last month, the bridge was closed for several hours following a three-car wreck involving a tractor-trailer during rush hour.
Francie Szarek, who lives in Beaufort and commutes to and from Savannah, says she considers the bridge dangerous.
"More importantly, though, is the amount of raw lumber traveling across the bridge," she said in a Facebook message to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. "With no shoulder allowing cars to swerve, one has very little space to avoid falling debris. I avoided a large piece of it (Wednesday). I've also lost a side-view mirror in that area because of a falling log."
Nagel would not speculate on when construction would begin. The construction contract will set a completion date, she said, but decisions about when to start work will be up to the winning bidder.