Beaufort County turns its attention to planning replacement of bridges to Hilton Head

cconley@ilsandpacket.comMarch 9, 2013 

With the flyover question now settled, some Beaufort County Council members believe it's a good time to start planning for another large project: Replacement of the bridges connecting Hilton Head Island to the mainland.

"Absolutely, we need to start thinking about what we need to do because it's a long-term project," said Councilman Jerry Stewart, who represents parts of Bluffton and Okatie.

The council discussed bridge replacement during its recent retreat. It has yet to be discussed during a regular council meeting.

Although the spans are considered safe, they are showing age, according to a 2010 study that found cracking and other problems with all four bridges between the island and the mainland. The worst issues were discovered on the eastbound section Karl S. Bowers Bridge, which crosses Mackey Creek. It was built in 1956 and upgraded in 1984.

The bridges over Skull Creek and another span crossing over Mackey Creek were built in the early 1980s. Traffic on the bridges ranges from 44,000 to 64,000 vehicles a day, according to county records.

The S.C. Department of Transportation inspects the bridges every two years. The last inspection, in November, found a few "very small deficiencies," according to DOT's Eric Jones.

"All deficiencies found on this structure have been repaired with the exception of painting the beams on the bridge. The public should not have any concerns with the structural integrity of these bridges," he said.

The state's next inspection is scheduled for 2014.

County engineering director Rob McFee declined to be interviewed for this article. He referred questions about the bridges to DOT.

The 2010 report suggested the Bower's bridge was near the end of its useful life. It did not say, however, when the bridge should be replaced. It's not clear how much it would cost to replace the spans.

But if the flyover offers any lesson, it is to prepare for big construction projects early. The county first envisioned linking the Bluffton Parkway and U.S. 278 at least a decade ago, and only last month finished a contract to build the $45 million connection.

The flyover's completion date will depend on when construction begins; the county says construction will last about 30 months.

"I think we should study it. We should understand the life left in those bridges," Councilman Steve Baer of Hilton Head said last week, noting that it "takes a long while" to get plans and money to build a bridge.

He said any effort to replace the bridges should include the Town of Hilton Head Island.

Town manager Steve Riley agrees it makes sense to start thinking about bridge replacement -- even if it's not an immediate concern.

"Whatever we do is going to take many years to design and permit and an unknown amount of money to finance -- probably quite a bit of money," he said Thursday.

It's not clear when, if at all, the bridge issue will re-surface this year. County Council did not select it as a top priority for the year. That doesn't mean it won't happen.

"Obviously, it makes sense to explore it," said Stu Rodman, who represents part of Hilton Head on County Council, especially because "state and federal governments may not have money to replace the bridges."

Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.

Related content:

Contracts approved for flyover to Hilton Head, despite opponents' late push, Feb. 25, 2013

Hilton Head's Karl S. Bowers Bridge showing its age, report finds, May 15, 2010

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