Bridge ruled unsafe

Span over Lake Marion will close permanently

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"Boy, I am disappointed," Clarendon County Council Chairman Dwight Stewart said about the closing of the old U.S. 301 across Lake Marion. "A lot of people use it."

Stewart, an avid bicyclist, said he has crossed the bridge with his bicycle and taken S.C. 6 to St. Matthews several times.

Unfortunately for those who use the bridge, fencing to keep people off the bridge will be installed this week, South Carolina Department of Transportation Region 7 Administrator Kevin Gantt said.

After some recent inspections, including underwater inspections, engineers determined the bridge was unsafe, and he ordered it closed, Gantt said.

Gantt said the inspections were prompted by concerns about the number of people who may want to watch the Aug. 21 eclipse from the bridge.

"We are trying to secure it because we can't really anticipate how many people will be out there (during the eclipse)," he said. "Because of the condition of the bridge, we decided we needed to close it."

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he is opposed to closing the bridge but wants to see the engineer's reports. He said he may introduce legislation to transfer the bridge to a different entity.

"I understand the idea that you don't want a lot of people on it during the eclipse, and for that purpose, I would understand closing," he said. "I can't understand closing it to people who go out there for the Palmetto Trail, to exercise or fish."

Hutto said he uses the bridge, which goes from Orangeburg County to Clarendon County, quite often.

"Obviously, I haven't been in scuba gear under the bridge, so if there is something on the pilings on the bottom, that's what I want to see the report about," he said.

SCDOT Assistant State Maintenance Director Mark Hunter said the department considers the bridge to have been abandoned since 1987.

He said before this year, the last complete inspection that included underwater inspections was in 1985.

"A lot of the bridge is underwater; you don't see it," he said.

Hunter said the bridge has had a lot of issues.

"It has a lot of cracks in the concrete and substructure," he said. "The ends of the beams were deteriorated so that on many of the beams, they had to install steel saddles, which is an interim type of repair."

Those repairs occurred in the late 1980s, he said, and even those repairs are deteriorating.

Hunter said the bridge's use as a pedestrian bridge also presents problems.

"AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) has pretty high requirements for pedestrians because if you load something with pedestrians, it is a pretty high live load," he said. "Plus, your rails don't meet the requirements for a pedestrian bridge."

Hunter said the rails on the bridge are so low someone could easily trip and fall off the bridge.

Just replacing the bridge rails could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

"You're still dealing with a lot of repair issues to use it even for pedestrians," Hunter said. "Somebody will have to come up with a lot of money."

Gantt said he would like to see DOT take the end spans out until they can begin a larger project to remove the entire bridge. Removing the spans would make it more difficult for people to get on the bridge.

Hutto said he does not want that to happen until he has seen the reports and has had time to see if someone else would want to take over the bridge.

"If they don't want to maintain it, maybe we can find somebody else who will," Hutto said.

Hunter said the bridge will have to come out sooner or later.

"It gets to the point where it has to be removed for the safety of people underneath," he said.

"It is a very large structure, so going out there to demolish it isn't as simple as the majority of the bridges that are in our inventory," Gantt said. "Most of them are just a couple of spans, and you could go out there over a week or so, but this one is so long, and it is over deep water, that it takes a big effort to mobilize and be able to remove the bridge."

He said part of the difficulty is the length of the bridge.

"The length of the bridge becomes an obstacle," Gantt said. "That bridge is just under 2 miles long; it's about 1.85 miles, just under 9,800 feet."