Members of the eastern Union County mill village community encircled three lunchroom tables covered with giant maps of South Carolina Highway 9 at the point where it meanders through the community.
Some craned over them, others sat down. Fingers pointed to various locations — homes, businesses, etc. — and interested eyes scanned the map at their respective tables. Others stood in the background, near the walls or in small groups that became islands in the cafeteria, talking to each other about the issue at hand.
Those with nametags answer any and all questions brought to the table and tried their best to talk to everyone.
Lockhart residents turned out in droves to talk about what the maps overlayed: The future of four bridges that span the Broad River, Broad River Canal and two Lockhart streets and connect the community — and Union County — to Chester County.
The South Carolina Department of Transportation held a public informational meeting at the Lockhart school Tuesday to begin dialogue between it and the residents of the community about a proposed project that would replace or move four bridges on Highway 9.
SCDOT and RPM Engineers — the project’s engineering firm — held the meeting to inform the community of where the project is right now and engage residents in the project. Officials wanted to know what concerns and questions community members have at this point even while the proposed construction project is just now in its infancy.
“I know this project is very important to the town,” said SCDOT project manager Brian Klauk. “That’s why we scheduled this meeting a little earlier than we usually do.”
The four structures proposed to be replaced are the bridges on Highway 9 spanning the Broad River, Broad River Canal, Canal Road and Lockhart Drive. All four existing bridges were designed and constructed between 1938-1947, with the oldest of the four now about 72 years old.
This project has been on the state’s radar for several years, according to Klauk. Two years ago, the South Carolina Legislature passed Act 114 which created a statewide priority system for the bridges in the state’s highway system. This project finally came up for consideration — based on its rank through that priority system — in the last year, making federal funding available.
Klauk explained Tuesday the four bridges in question are considered “functionally obsolete and structurally deficient.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re not safe,” he told community members.
What it does mean, however, is that the bridges no longer meet current design standards and scored on inspections — which are required every two years — as needing to be looked at for replacement.
The bridges are not to the point where load limits or other measures need to be taken by SCDOT to keep motorists driving over them safe — instead, inspectors have found it’s time to do something so those measures won’t need to be put in place.
“Our job is to replace these bridges well before they become an issue,” Klauk said.
Engineering designs for six possible alternatives were completed in January of this year and officials began meeting with the town’s leaders in April to discuss the project.
So the project truly is in the most preliminary of phases.
Thus far, surveyors, utility locators and other field staff have been working in the area gathering information and the design team is continuing to work to collect necessary data. The designs of those six possible preliminary alternative routes were presented to the community at Tuesday’s meeting.
Four of the six alternatives would reroute Highway 9 over new bridges and take out the existing structures completely. Two of those alternatives would keep the bridges in essentially the same location, but either somewhat north or south of the current structures, and two others would move the route further north or south of the current bridges.
Option five would mean closing off the bridges from end to end during construction and rerouting traffic via a 33-mile detour to get from one side of the Broad River to the other. The final option would be a “no-build” option where the project simply would not be done at this time — an option Klauk said is rarely preferred.
“These are very general and they are subject to change,” he said.
Once construction starts, SCDOT estimates it could take at least 24 months but probably not more than 36 — or between 2-3 years. The first four alternative routes would keep existing bridges open so traffic would not be diverted. The only option that would close the route over the Broad River is the one that would replace the structures and put new bridges back in the same locations.
SCDOT has $17 million in federal funding available for this project. If option six — or the no-build proposal — is selected, that money would be used somewhere else in the state.
“We’re here because we think we need to do something,” Klauk said.
There will be impacts to the community no matter which bridge replacement option is selected, what SCDOT does not know is what all of those impacts will be. Klauk admitted widening the route through Lockhart or changing it — depending on the option eventually selected to move forward with — could impact a number of things including housing, business, traffic and the environment.
It’s all of those impacts his department and the engineers with RPM working on the project have to determine and Tuesday evening’s meeting was a way to gather more of that information.
Klauk told those Lockhart residents in attendance at the meeting there are several variables SCDOT and RPM have to look at while designing and moving forward on this project. In all honesty, neither he nor RPM project manager Berry Still had a lot of answers to the community’s questions on Tuesday because the project is so early on in the process.
The alternative routes could even change depending on the information gathered before a final project plan is laid down on paper.
What Klauk could tell the residents of Lockhart, however, is that SCDOT will keep them up to date and informed on the project as it moves forward. Another public meeting will be held this fall to present the results of cultural and natural resource studies of the six alternatives and receive public comment. Then, a public hearing on the project will follow shortly after to unveil the preferred alternative and solicit final public comment.
“We’ll keep everybody in the loop as the project progresses,” he said.
He also wants the people of Lockhart and anyone else who has input on the proposed project to let him know. Klauk encouraged anyone who wants to comment on the project to call, write or email him their questions, concerns or thoughts. The more input, he said, from the community only helps SCDOT and RPM make the best decision on which way to go.
Klauk, SCDOT and RPM know whatever route is eventually decided upon, the project is a big deal for the Lockhart community and those who live, work and play in Union and Chester counties.
“We recognize how important this bridge is to the community,” Klauk said.