A modern bridge to the historic South

Charleston gets a signature span - ahead of schedule.

With its twin "diamond" spans that rise like steeples above the Cooper River, Charleston's new river crossing - an emergency public works project turned civic cause célèbre - has broken all kinds of records: It's the longest cable-stay bridge in North America, and the biggest public works ever in the Palmetto State, and it was all completed a year ahead of schedule.

For a total cost of $632 million - less than what Las Vegas is paying for a new drinking-water intake on Lake Mead - the bridge-builders, who came from as far away Sweden and Denmark to crank bolts on the span, have created not only something oddly beautiful but something as important to the commerce of the entire South as the Big Dig is to New England, officials say.

Indeed, in a city that's almost Yankee frugal and where squabbles over architecture and historic preservation seem to flare up daily, the Ravenel Bridge is a rare marriage between the aristocratic and plebeian.

"In some sense it's a bridge across the centuries of Charleston's history, encompassing time as well as physical space," says City Councilor Bob George of Jane's Island.

A new look for the Old South

In a way, the modern bridge design, with its two 575-foot towers holding a majestic span of brilliant white cables, seems at odds with Charleston's bougainvilleas, Spanish moss, and down-home menus that serve shrimp and grits.

But the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge sprang from necessity as the old Grace Bridge it replaced, built in 1929, threatened to crumble at any time: scoring a four on a safety scale from one to 100, one being absolutely treacherous.

Battle over preserving heritage

Early on, there were rejections of early plans and fights over how to give the bridge the "Charleston treatment," including a two-span bridge that had city officials alleging that the state was trying to sell them half a bridge. Yet the community worked together to get an economical design past the powerful Board of Architectural Review, which reins supreme over the city's cobblestone vistas.

Indeed, part of the near unanimous approval came from cooperation in the planning, led by former state Sen. "Cousin" Arthur Ravenel, who can now gaze at his namesake bridge from his back porch. For funding, the state pitched in $350 million and the balance came from a low-interest federal loan.

"I don't think people realize how many folks - not just the [Department of Transportation], but engineering consultants and local politicians, local folks from Charleston - really got involved in it and made it work," says Matt Lifsey, a traffic engineer with the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

Experts say the economic impact will be unmistakable: Once the old bridges are taken down, larger container ships, the heavyweights of global shipping, will be able to sidle up through the pilings for the first time, promising growth for the nation's fourth-largest container port. Others expect new riverside redevelopment as the old steel pilings are sunk and turned into an artificial reef.

"This wouldn't have gotten done if it didn't have potential for the economy of the Low Country," says Mr. George, the city councilor.

To be sure, the bridge is a harbinger of new problems - for one, it sets a new standard for an outdated road system, promising more costly improvements. "It will be a while for the old roads to keep up with the new bridge," says Lynette Kelly, a Charleston kindergarten teacher.

Captains here used to maneuver the river by the positions of the church steeples of the "Holy City," but this week the city's defining new landmark - equipped with protected benches and a pedestrian walkway - drew tens of thousands of commuters and gawkers to cross the 3.5 mile bridge by tire or foot for its first rush hour. Already its elegant outline graces everything from baseball caps to restaurant glasses.

No more white-knuckled drivers

For drivers, especially, the new bridge is an improvement. After all, the old Grace Bridge could have qualified for a "Fear Factor" stunt: An aging narrow roadway, it was a white-knuckled run of crooks, turns, and dips. "You just had to pretend you're on a country road and don't drive off the side," is how one local describes the experience.

One woman with a vanful of kids said for the first time there was quietude and wonder instead of fearful yelps in the back as the family swept across the river, eight-lane-style.

Others half expected to see Jetsons-style hovercars upon crossing into the old town from Mt. Pleasant.

"When I went across it I felt like I was in a Science Fiction movie," says Ms. Kelly, who has already crossed the bridge six times.

"When you're at the top you see the city in a different way and you realize how blessed you are to live here."

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