By Sarita Chourey –
COLUMBIA — Laboring for the third time in recent years to prepare for Jasper County’s growth, county leaders are pressing state officials to reconsider a decision to remove a bridge over a dormant rail corridor.
The newest concern surrounds the South Carolina Department of Transportation’s decision to take away the existing bridge over CSX Railroad on Speedway Boulevard, also known as U.S. 17, north of South Okatie Highway, S.C. 315. In its place, state officials intend to build an at-grade crossing.
The area is crucial because of its proximity to the future bi-state Jasper Ocean Terminal, the $706 million Savannah River deepening project, and Hardeeville’s RiverPort site.
Jasper County Administrator Andrew Fulghum called the removal plan “shortsighted, problematic and a poor use of resources, given the inevitability of large-scale development in the area.” His letter, dated March 13, was addressed to DOT project manager Roger Sears. A meeting with county officials and Sears is scheduled for Wednesday.
At the end of February, the state transportation agency announced the effort to remove the bridge was nearing the last stage of the design process and was tentatively scheduled to begin early next year. The DOT classifies the bridge as “structurally deficient.””
The rail corridor the bridge overpasses isn’t used, there are no tracks in place, and CSX Transportation doesn’t plan to put in tracks in the future, according to the DOT’s news release last month.
But abandoning it is the wrong decision, according to Jasper County leaders.
“Workforce commuting patterns, existing port operations in Savannah, expanded operations associated with the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP), private industrial development of the RiverPort Business Park and development of the Jasper Ocean Terminal make the idea of removing the bridge an inappropriate effort,” wrote Fulghum on Friday.
In October regional officials approved funding for a widening project to expand a four-mile stretch of U.S. 17 from two lanes to four from the Georgia state line to S.C. 315. The cost increased from about $20 million to nearly $53 million because of soil problems at the site, prompting some controversy over how to pay for it.
And in September, Jasper County prevailed on a matter that had also generated heartburn.
Local leaders had sounded the alarm against state planners’ intentions to allow a four-lane road to lead into the reconstructed, two-lane Back River Bridge connecting Jasper County and Savannah. The consensus: Emptying four lanes of vehicles onto two lanes over the Back River would create a frustrating, dangerous bottleneck. The current bridge bears 19,000 vehicles daily, but its replacement will support about 35,000 vehicles.
Then last fall, workshop notes from the Lowcountry Council of Governments revealed plans for a “twin bridge” to be constructed alongside the new Back River Bridge. It adds an extra $15 million to the $53 million widening of U.S. 17.
The twin bridge, which remains to be funded, was included as the second phase of the U.S. 17 widening.
Meeting to focus on bridge removal concerns
The Jasper County Transportation Committee will hold a special meeting at 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, in the County Council Chambers. The Transportation Committee will meet with SCDOT Project Manager Roger Sears to discuss the proposed bridge removal project.