Congaree Park bridge talks go nowhere

The state Department of Transportation did little Monday to ease National Park Service concerns about a $38.4 million bridge project through Congaree National Park.

After a meeting with the DOT in Columbia, park superintendent Tracy Swartout said the road-building agency remains unwilling to change the bridge design to better protect wildlife and restore an ecologically sensitive flood plain.

The DOT pledged during Monday's meeting to help the service find money for visitor access to the park's lower section along U.S. 601, which Swartout said is a good idea. But she said the state agency would not agree to add more bridging through the flood plain.

She and state Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Richland Democrat whose district includes the park, expressed frustration with the DOT.

"The Park Service continues to be disappointed at DOT's lack of concern for the Park Service's environmental considerations on this project," Swartout said.

Transportation agency officials declined to respond to her comments Monday night, but released a statement earlier in the day saying they could add improved parking as part of the bridge design. The statement also said the bridge project is "an environmentally responsible and cost effective solution for the replacement of the existing bridges."

At issue is how the DOT proposes to rebuild a 4.3-mile stretch of U.S. 601 through the Congaree River flood plain and the lower end of the park.

The department has proposed replacing an aging, structurally deficient bridge over the Congaree River that many agree is badly in need of replacement. But the project also includes reconstructing U.S. 601, much as it was originally built decades ago - with a series of causeways and bridges as the road approaches the river.

Conservation groups and the National Park Service want the agency to take out causeways that filled in the flood plain decades ago and replace the filled areas with longer bridges. That will allow wildlife to pass more freely through Congaree National Park as animals attempt to get from one side of U.S. 601 to the other.

Longer bridges also would allow water to flow through the flood plain, a signature feature in Congaree National Park, park officials say. The park is full of wildlife adapted to the soggy plain and contains some of the most extensive old-growth, flood plain forest in the country.

Officials with the DOT say extensive additional bridging could double the cost of the $38.4 million project.

Swartout said she is glad the department is willing to help her agency secure funds for more parking on the park's lower flank near the Richland-Calhoun county line. But Swartout said it was clear from the meeting Monday that the road-building agency did not want to make substantive changes to the bridge design for fear of delaying decisions on permits it needs.

The transportation department is awaiting word on whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will approve a permit to work in wetlands. The state agency hopes to begin work on the bridge project as soon as this fall, DOT officials said Monday.

The highway agency's statement said the project needs to start before heavy trucks are barred from the deficient bridges - or before the bridges are shut down completely, causing lengthy detours. The Congaree River bridge links the St. Matthews area and parts of the lower state with Columbia and lower Richland County.

Jackson said he tried to find out more Monday from the DOT, but the agency balked at allowing one of his staff to attend the meeting unless all attendees agreed to let him in. The staff member finally left. Jackson called the DOT's action "weird." He also noted that the DOT needs to consider the importance of Congaree National Park.

"It's our only national park," Jackson said. "The DOT has found funds to support a whole lot of things that they wanted to support. I tend to support what the park (service) is saying."

Whether the Park Service or environmental groups would seek to stop the project is unclear. The state Wildlife Federation, Audubon South Carolina and Friends of Congaree Swamp already have forced the agency to conduct a more detailed environmental study of the project's impacts. The updated study came out recently, and the groups are trying to determine if the study complies with a 2008 federal court decision requiring more extensive review.