The old U.S. Highway 301 bridge over Lake Marion may get new life. There are good reasons to make it happen if a study finds the Francis Marion Bridge can be made safe for pedestrian and recreational use.

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In October, a public hearing about the bridge was held in Santee, with the S.C. Department of Transportation as host. Interest in the bridge that once was the only Lake Marion crossing connecting Orangeburg and Clarendon counties has grown since its closure for all uses in August 2017 ahead of the solar eclipse. Safety concerns prompted the action with large crowds expected on the bridge to view the eclipse.

The bridge, closed to vehicular traffic in the 1980s, was used recreationally and as a pedestrian crossing for decades. The objective now is to see if it can resume such use.

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Before any commitment is made for work to repair the bridge, an engineering firm will complete a detailed inspection of it, including the underwater pilings. That is as sensible as necessary for a structure built in 1945 that is showing cracking in concrete along the 5,315-foot span.

Perhaps the study will find that making the bridge safe for pedestrian and recreational uses is cost prohibitive. It’s possible that it cannot be made safe, at which point putting the bridge back into limited service can’t happen.

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But with Lake Marion a major tourist attraction and the bridge offering the only pedestrian link between Orangeburg and Clarendon counties, its further use is desirable.

Do not forget that the only crossing presently is the adjacent Interstate 95 bridges, each two lanes. The bridges are a traffic nightmare and have produced terrible accidents in the past, with the lack of emergency lanes inhibiting access. As with other interstates, pedestrians are not allowed access.

T&D outdoors columnist Dan Geddings has written: “… The interstate bridges over the lake were classified as ‘functionally obsolete’ when they were built, due to the fact that there are no emergency lanes. They are a bottleneck in the federal interstate system.

“Lane closures for construction activities or accidents on the 95 bridges have caused unbearable delays and 100-mile-long detours on local roads. People have even died because there is no quick way to move a disabled vehicle from the traffic lanes. These bridges will eventually have to be rebuilt.”

As much as that should be a priority, Geddings offered another idea.

“A new bridge across the lake beside the old Francis Marion Bridge could be a tremendous benefit to the entire state. It would reconnect the Highway 301/15 corridor. Commercials zones near the lake in Clarendon and Orangeburg could flourish. A new bridge could serve as a nearby detour in the event of an emergency on I-95, until new interstate bridges are eventually built.”

Geddings acknowledges a new bridge may not be built immediately, but it is an idea with merit. A lake crossing other than I-95 would have great benefits.

Quoting Geddings: “The new bridge could incorporate pedestrian access for hikers and cyclists, and fishing platforms could be built along its length. It would be a showcase for this region. The old bridge could be made safe and used until the new bridge is built, then torn down.”

In the meantime, putting the Francis Marion back in use, as Geddings states, “would be a good first step.” Let’s hope it’s possible.

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