Brief bridge closure a reminder of priorities

Fortunately, no serious damage was done last week when a shrimp boat ran into the Harbor Island Bridge on the far reaches of U.S. 21.

Still, the two-lane bridge was closed to traffic for more than two hours, and that should be a cautionary tale for Beaufort County.

When the bridge closed, everyone on Fripp Island, Harbor Island and the Hunting Island State Park lost their land connection to the hospital and most provisions needed in daily life.

Old-timers know what this can mean.

In 1974, a barge knocked the two-lane, swing-span bridge that was then the sole link to Hilton Head Island out of service for six weeks. A pontoon bridge was put in place by the military to move vehicles on and off the island at certain times of day. But even with that, the disruption to life and the economy was so staggering that it is still considered one of the worst calamities in county history.

The cautionary tale from last week includes the importance of widely known plans for a bridge outage, especially when a single bridge offers the only way into and out of a community. Part of the problem with the 1974 outage was that much of the "planning" was done on the fly, after the fact. The emergency was one of the earliest warning bells to many islanders that they needed a municipal government, and that came to be nine years later.

Beaufort County has made great strides since 1974 on emergency planning. But there can never be enough planning and public warnings in a county full of bridges, boats and islands.

Last week's brush with disaster also begs for a higher priority for bridge repair and replacement.

Two years ago, the Town of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County commissioned a study of the oldest of four two-lane spans that now link Hilton Head to the mainland. The older portion of the Karl S. Bowers Bridge over Mackays Creek was built in 1956. It was built to last 50 years. The study found problems that were labeled matters of concern, but not matters of imminent danger. At the time, the state had to weigh those concerns with issues facing 9,200 other bridges statewide -- with one out of five of them considered deficient. That's not good governance.

The shrimp boat that hit the Harbor Island Bridge did nothing but knock out a navigation light, authorities said. That's fortunate. We may not be so fortunate next time.

As state and county budgets get squeezed, it becomes more important for bridges and emergency planning to have strong advocates.