In Unusual Move, New Swing Bridge to Replace Ben Sawyer

Mon August 16, 2004 - Southeast Edition

MOUNT PLEASANT, SC (AP) One indelible image from Hurricane Hugo was that of the Ben Sawyer Bridge twisted on its foundation by the storm’s 135 mph winds, one end of the swing bridge tilting precariously into the Intracoastal Waterway.

For two weeks after the September 1989 storm, what was the only link between the mainland and the barrier islands northeast of Charleston was severed and residents had to travel by boat to their storm-ravaged homes. At the time, the span linking Mount Pleasant and Sullivans Island was repaired for about $1 million.

Now, 15 years later, the almost 60-year-old bridge has reached the end of its useful life. And plans are being made now to build another one like it.

The project comes when, increasingly, draw bridges and swing bridges along the coast are disappearing as they are replaced with higher fixed span bridges arching over the navigable channels and into beach communities.

“It is very unusual to replace a moveable bridge over a navigable waterway such as the Intracoastal Waterway with another moveable bridge in this day and time,” said Bob Harrell, who represents the 1st Congressional District on the state Transportation Commission.

But state and federal officials also want to accommodate local wishes “especially when the community is trying to retain the ambiance of the area,” Harrell said.

As far back as 1975, town officials and residents on Sullivans Island made it clear they want no part in a bigger, fixed-span bridge.

The community “feels very possessive and passionate about that bridge,” Mayor Marshall Stith wrote the department a few years back. “The citizens take pride in the quaint beach village atmosphere and want to do everything possible to preserve that.”

Since Hugo, a fixed span, the Isle of Palms Connector, has been built linking the neighboring Isle of Palms with the mainland. So now if a hurricane threatens there is more than one route off the islands which are linked by a bridge between them at Breech Inlet.

In a few weeks, the Transportation Department is expected to seek bids on engineering studies of the Ben Sawyer.

Engineers will first examine repairing the bridge and, if that is not feasible, replacing it with a similar bridge in the same footprint, Harrell said.

Replacement could mean the bridge will be closed for at least a year, requiring Sullivans Island residents to drive several miles out of their way up to the Isle of Palms.

“A year is ambitious,” Harrell said, noting that would mean crews working around-the-clock. “You’re not talking about 12 months to construct a bridge. You’re talking about 12 months to first remove what is there and then construction.”