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South Carolina span makes statement

May 1, 2005
USA Today
By Larry Copeland
CHARLESTON, S.C. — When the new Cooper River Bridge was proposed, many here fretted over whether it would fit in with a city that prides itself on its history.

How would the soaring span — the longest bridge of its kind in North America — look against the squat skyline of the city where the Civil War began in 1861 when the Confederates seized Fort Sumter?

"Everybody had that concern," says state transportation official Bobby Clair, the driving force behind the $632 million bridge connecting Charleston and Mount Pleasant.

They needn't have worried. The new bridge, which will replace two antiquated spans as Charleston joins the ranks of the nation's most-congested cities, has won quick approval. On a recent afternoon, members of the Charleston Ballet posed for promotional photographs before the bridge's distinctive diamond-shaped towers. The ABC affiliate here, WCIV-TV, uses a panoramic bridge photograph as a set background for its newscasts.

"It is a real design achievement, physically very beautiful," says Mayor Joseph Riley, who has held the post for 30 years and who led a push for a walking and bicycling lane on the span. "It's a wonderful attribute, an engaging backdrop."

Even before it opens in late June or July, about a year ahead of schedule, the new span has become a signature structure. Its gleaming, modernistic towers are fast joining such Lowcountry icons as the Spoleto Festival, she-crab soup and handmade sweetgrass baskets.

As the nation's aging bridges become obsolete, communities often insist that they be replaced by structures that do much more than carry people from here to there. "I think there's greater attention to bridges as a statement of civic pride," says Robert Dunphy, senior resident for transportation and infrastructure at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington research group that tracks land-use trends.

Raymond McCabe, senior vice president and national director of bridges at construction design firm HNTB, says communities next to major bridge projects are demanding a voice. "They're going to have to live with that bridge and drive over it every day," he says. His company designed Boston's Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, which spans the Charles River and is a symbol of the huge Big Dig project.

Other bridges transforming landscapes:

•A bridge over the Maumee River will enhance the skyline of Toledo, Ohio, when it opens in October 2006. The $220 million Veterans' Glass City Skyway will have a single tower climbing 400 feet, making it the city's second-tallest structure, after the Owen-Illinois building. The bridge's glass panels will reflect the skyline during the day and change colors at night.

•Two towers will soar above the Mississippi River when a $260 million bridge on U.S. 82 links Greenville, Miss., and Lake Village, Ark., in 2009. The bridge will stretch 2,560 feet, supplanting Charleston's new bridge as the nation's longest cable-stayed bridge.

•The Four Bears Bridge over Lake Sakakawea on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near New Town, N.D., will feature medallions selected by three local tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. The 4,400-foot, $55 million bridge is scheduled to open in late summer or early fall.

A rugged design

Charleston's new bridge needed more than aesthetic appeal. In 1989, the city was battered by Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm that killed 82 people. A century earlier, in 1886, a magnitude-7.7 earthquake hit here, killing 60 and causing widespread damage.

The bridge can endure an earthquake as strong as the one in 1886, or a Category 5 hurricane, says its designer, Michael Abrahams of Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas.

That's not all. It's expected to allow for more efficient hurricane evacuations, to boost Charleston's port operations by permitting supertankers to use the river and to relieve traffic jams. The old bridges handle 66,000 vehicles daily; the replacement is projected to handle 84,000 daily in 2024.

"We're getting people moving in here in droves," says Mount Pleasant Mayor Harry Hallman. On May 9, Charleston made the Texas Transportation Institute's list of 51 cities where commuters face at least 20 hours of congestion a year.

When the obsolete Grace and Pearman bridges are demolished, Charleston will reclaim about 10 square blocks now virtually useless because of access ramps and overpasses. Neighborhoods split when the Pearman was built will be reconnected. Riley promises redevelopment plans will include affordable housing.

Some residents fear gentrification sweeping areas near the foot of the old bridges. "I'm very concerned about what's coming in here," says Joseph Watson, a community activist. "If we do not follow the format of what was in there before, we will force people out of their homes because the tax rate won't just double or triple, it will go up much higher."

Nerve-racking crossing

The Grace Bridge cost $6 million when it opened in 1929. It has two lanes, each 10 feet wide, and no shoulders. The $15 million Pearman Bridge opened with three lanes next to the Grace in 1966.

The Grace could be a terrifying passage. "When my wife and I first moved here, we came across that bridge, and the minute we made it across, she said, 'If this is the only way out of here, I will never leave Charleston again,' " says Ted Stern, retired president of the College of Charleston.

The new span is widely known as the Cooper River Bridge, but its formal name is the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. It is named after a retired state senator who helped secure funding for it. Ravenel, 78, remembers coming across the Grace on a bus after a high school football game in 1943: "We ran out of gas. We had to push the bus to the top. Then we all got back in and coasted down. You never forget that experience. It was a fairly harrowing trip over that old bridge."

Charleston's frequent lobbying for a new bridge proved futile until 1995, when the state Transportation Department announced that if a perfectly functional bridge were a 100, the Grace was a 4. "That really shocked us into doing something," Ravenel says.
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