Construction crews are about halfway finished building a new Back River Bridge, linking Jasper County and Hutchinson Island on U.S. 17 near Savannah.
The new span will replace a 60-year-old bridge that is about 0.6 miles long and just northeast of the much larger and longer Talmadge Memorial Bridge to Savannah.
The project remains on schedule and within its $16.4 million budget, and it could be open to traffic next summer, said Jill Nagel, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Federal grants will pay about $13 million for the new bridge, Nagel said. Georgia will pay about $3 million, with South Carolina picking up the leftover $400,000.
The entire project, which includes the demolition of the old bridge, should be finished by the end of 2015, Nagel said.
The new two-lane bridge will include 8-foot-wide shoulders on each side to improve safety, Nagel said. The current shoulders are only a foot wide.
"If somebody breaks down, you've got 16 extra feet to get over on the shoulder, or you have more room to get out of the way when emergency vehicles come through," Nagel said.
The Back River Bridge has been the site of many accidents in recent years, including several fatal wrecks. In March, a woman was injured in a collision there, and two drivers were killed in a collision in November. In each instance, the head-on crashes forced authorities to close the bridge, snarling traffic.
About 19,000 vehicles travel across the bridge every day, a number that is expected to rise to 36,000 a day by 2030, Nagel said. Replacing the bridge will head off bigger problems as those traffic counts rise, she added.
However, S.C. Department of Transportation and Jasper County leaders were concerned last year that the two-lane bridge design would create a bottleneck when the S.C. DOT widens U.S. 17 to four lanes. That project would expand U.S. 17 to two lanes in each direction and include a grassy median between S.C. 170 and the bridge, according to Brent Rewis, DOT Lowcountry program manager. The $50 million widening is not yet fully funded, but construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in early 2016, he said.
To avoid bottlenecks, South Carolina plans to build another two-lane span parallel to the new Back River Bridge as a second phase of the U.S. 17 widening, Rewis said. That project would cost an additional $15 million.
That bridge probably would be paid for with a mix of federal and state funding, Rewis and Nagel said. In that case, South Carolina would take on the majority of the remaining costs, they said.
"A lot could happen between now and then, and funding is going to continue to be the constraint on building these things," Rewis said.
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.