YORK COUNTY, S.C. — The daily commute from York County into Charlotte is going to get a lot more frustrating.
A massive bridge repair project on one of South Carolina’s busiest highways began Thursday night and will likely cause commuting headaches for people who travel between Rock Hill and Charlotte.
Crews were supposed to close the Interstate 77 southbound bridge over the Catawba River at 9 p.m. Thursday but it wasn’t closed it until about noon the next day. It will remain closed for 17 days to replace to concrete road surface on the structure, the Department of Transportation said. All four lanes will be closed for at least three weeks.
The bridge was built in 1970s and has needed spot repairs to its surface several times in the past few years. Engineers have concluded it is best just to build a new bridge deck.
The SCDOT told Channel 9 that they want to get it repaired before the summer travel season kicks off. Officials said they expect to get another 30 to 40 years out of the improvements to the bridge.
The contractors will have crews working 12 hour shifts around the clock and staying at a nearby hotel, SCDOT Deputy Secretary for Engineering Leland Colvin said at a news conference.
And there is a strict timetable: For every hour the southbound bridge remains closed after the 5 a.m. May 24 deadline, United Infrastructure Group out of Chester County, will be fined $10,000, Colvin said.
“We got $10,000 per hour if the contractor is late and we don’t expect that whatsoever,” said Colvin.
The contractor is being paid $12.7 million for the project.
I-77 is the main route between Columbia and Charlotte and sees an average of 120,000 vehicles a day. The only nearby bridge on U.S. Highway 21 sees an average of 30,000 vehicle a day, according to SCDOT figures.
Southbound traffic will be diverted over to the northbound side while work goes on. DOT is also closing several on-ramps to I-77 to prevent huge bottlenecks.
Still, it’s going to be a mess, and other routes to Charlotte, like Highways 21 and 49, will see a surge in traffic.
“It’s gonna be an extra like 30 minutes of driving, and if everyone’s going that way, it’s gonna be backed up,” one driver said.
>> In the video below, Channel 9′s Damany Lewis breaks down exactly what drivers are in for.
Pest control exterminator Richard Ford said he’s always driving along I-77 and the construction will be a new wrench thrown into his work day.
“It takes me 15 minutes to get from Catawba to here, now it will take an hour,” he said.
Ford is not alone. SCDOT officials said 121,000 drivers will be impacted, especially during the morning and evening rush hour.
“Certainly Cherry Road, Celanese Road and Sutton Road will be very congested as you can anticipate that,” Colvin said.
The SCDOT installed a new traffic camera at the site of the southbound Interstate 77 Catawba River bridge repair project.
The new camera is part of SCDOT’s 511 Traveler Information System, www.511sc.org or via the free SCDOT 511 app. Search for “Catawba River Bridge.”
There are only a few bridges over the Catawba River in the area, and almost all alternative routes add a dozen or more miles to the average commute.
It’s a good idea to check DOT’s 7 traffic cameras in the area to see how the roads are moving before you head out.
Highway 21 is a potential alternate route. The highway is four lanes while on Cherry Road in Rock Hill but narrows into two lanes once you get to Fort Mill. The good news is that drivers only have to be on the highway for a short time before you can get turn on Sutton Road and hop back on the interstate.
Channel 9 checked the camera from Celanese Road in Rock Hill, up to Sutton Road in Fort Mill, and traffic moved OK in spots during the afternoon, though more delays are expected during peak hours.
Another potential alternate route out of Charlotte is to take Highway 49 to Lake Wylie to Highway 274 and then turn on to Celanese Road.
Barbie Smith is one of many drivers hunting for alternate routes and finding them slow going too.
“I mean they should have had something planned before all this, I mean it’s just too much,” Smith said.
>> In the video below, Traffic Team 9′s Mark Taylor walks you through some alternate routes to take during the Catawba River Bridge project
Officials said seven Catawba River boating access points will also be closed for the duration of the project so people don’t float under the bridge into a construction zone.
This project won’t be the end of the headaches, either; at some point, the northbound span needs attention. “We have seen deterioration in that direction as well, and we expect we’re going to have to address that sometime in the future,” said Colvin.
NCDOT helping drivers plan for travel delays on I-77
The North Carolina Department of Transportation will also be helping drivers prepare for significant delays on I-77 because of the bridge project.
NCDOT officials are making plans to increase Incident Management Assistance Patrol (IMAP) presence in the I-77 South and I-485 corridors during the evening commutes, helping to quickly clear incidents or stranded motorists.
Overhead and portable message signs will also be used to give drivers advanced notice of delays expected during the project.
Drivers are encouraged to plan ahead and use alternate routes if possible.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.