WIS Investigates: More money, accidents occur as Broad River bridge project continues

Millions of dollars over budget and several years behind, the Broad River Bridge project is almost complete.
Millions of dollars over budget and several years behind, the Broad River Bridge project is almost complete.

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A Midlands bridge project 10 years in the making is getting closer to completion, but not without costing taxpayers millions more than expected.

A WIS investigation has been asking state agencies about the Broad River Road bridge project for more than two months, resulting not only in details about the project itself, but also learning there's been a sharp increase in traffic accidents near the construction zone. Preliminary engineering activity started on the bridge project in late 2004. As things stand now, it could be another six months for construction crews to completely clear the site.

If all had gone according to plans, cars and trucks would be streaming across all four lanes of the Broad River Bridge right now. In fact, that was supposed to happen more than a year ago. But the S.C. Department of Transportation says it will be another three months before all lanes are open.

That's not what auto dealer Harold Wray wants to hear. Wray says the construction has affected his business, which sits on Broad River Road beside the bridge project.

"Well obviously, it's been a big problem," Wray said.

The bridge is a vital link between residential and business districts west of the river and the core of the capital city. A more direct route, for instance, to emergency medical care. But the south half of the bridge dated back to 1928.

In March 2010, DOT started work to replace that side, along with the newer half built in 1972. Along the way, engineers discovered the job was going to be tougher than expected, especially drilling into the rock under the river. The drills had to penetrate as much as 30 feet, and the rock was several times harder than anyone knew.

"It really just becomes a time issue where you've got the drill rig," said Chris Kelly, of SCDOT. "It has to kind of grind on that rock a lot longer."

Kelly says asbestos in the older span and high water from heavy rains last year added to the delays. The department now says instead of being ready with both spans by May 2013, it expects to open all lanes in mid-November. That's a year and five months behind schedule.

Kelly said this is a reasonable amount of time to finish the job.

"If we'd known it beforehand, we might could have designed it a little differently knowing the rock hardness," Kelly said. "But the way it was encountered and the way that we did learn about it during the construction process, it was probably pretty accurate to what we needed."

Wray said the rock isn't the issue now.

"They've been through with all of those problems for months," Wray said. "And the drillers have been gone for months. The issue is workers under the bridge, working. There aren't. There are very few."

Wray says the diverted traffic flow has made it harder for customers to visit his dealerships. Parts, service and the body shop are all seeing downturns.

"It's been a real kind of a disaster for us, yes," Wray said, adding it's costing his dealerships "big" money. "And this is four and a half years now."

The project has also turned out to be way more expensive for the state. It was first estimated at $19 million. The cost has now jumped to almost $25.2 million – a more than $6 million increase.

And those orange barrels lining the roadway might have affected driving safety.

Figures from the Department of Public Safety show nine collisions at or near the bridge in 2010 when the work started. The number rose to 13 the following year and nearly doubled in each of the next two years.

A two-car crash on the bridge in September 2012 left one person dead and four others injured. The bridge was shut down for 8 hours.

"There's been a lot of accidents at that intersection, all this year," said Ted Lewis, a resident living near the bridge. "So I'm just going to tell you. It may have increased because of the two lanes on the bridge, but it's been steady."

In fact DPS figures show 78 crashes on or within a tenth of a mile of the bridge in the four years since construction started. At least 37 incidents leading to a charge of driving too fast for conditions. All, but two of those accidents, were during dry weather.

However, Lewis says there has been an upside to the long construction. The project required cutting off direct access from his street to Broad River Road.

"I don't believe it's been a bit of a problem for the neighborhood, and I can tell you without fear of contradiction that my close neighbors here and I do not miss the McDonald's boxes and the beer cans being thrown out of the windows as they're driving through," Lewis said.

DOT said the project won't be fully completed until February 2015. All lanes are expected to open in November, but crews will still need to add archways for aesthetic purposes and a pedestrian access ramp under the bridge.

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