We are on the verge of replacing the old Highway 41 bridge with a new span that does not fix one of the current bridge's most serious shortcomings - accommodating people on foot and on bicycles. The proposed design for this new bridge relegates bicyclists to ride in the breakdown lane right beside cars travelling at 45 mph plus. Pedestrians are to use two five-and-a-half-foot raised concrete sidewalks with no guardrails, despite the fact that there will be no connecting sidewalk on either end of the north side of the bridge.
The S.C. Department of Transportation's eventual plan, as traffic increases, is to restripe the car lanes, which will squeeze cyclists into a tiny space - a recipe for tragedy. As the missed-opportunity on the Ben Sawyer Bridge clearly demonstrates, a raised sidewalk is dangerously deficient to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists and not in step with current recommended design standards or the approved regional bike/ped plans.
This new bridge is to last 75 years and cost $30-plus million - an attractive "low bid" in the DOT's eyes, but far too high a price for a public works project that will fail three, perhaps four generations to come. Why, we ask, would the South Carolina Department of Transportation, with its own wonderful legacy of the Ravenel Bridge, spend more than $30 million to build bridge that is inhospitable to bicyclists and pedestrians? As Mayor Joe Riley stated, "It would be a terrible mistake to build a bridge there without a 10-foot bike-pedestrian path."
A parallel and intertwined issue with the proposed bridge design is the Coast Guard's alleged insistence on a new 55-foot bridge height. This stretch of the Wando quickly becomes shallow north of the bridge, and research done by the agencies involved shows only two sailboats with tall masts upstream. Every unit of local government that ever voted on it originally preferred a bridge no higher than 35 feet and originally, the DOT agreed. Today, however, we have an expensive disconnect, impossible to justify.
More than a decade ago our organization, Charleston Moves, spearheaded the drive (eventually with many others) to get a bike and pedestrian lane on the Ravenel Bridge. Today, everyone is proud of it, especially the DOT. The bike/pedestrian lane on the Ravenel Bridge is emblematic of Charleston Moves' mission: to advocate for transportation choices that improve quality of life. The benefits of a bike-friendly community include improved health and reduced health care costs, improved air quality and giving people the chance to get out from behind the wheel. It also yields economic benefit: As new industries and prospective residents consider relocating here, they compare our progress on bike/ped connectivity with that of other communities. We can no longer afford to lag behind.
Charleston Moves is intent on doing everything possible to convince DOT to reconfigure the proposed Highway 41 bridge design, and last Friday we convened a group community leaders to explore options to this end. Attending were Mayor Riley, Rep. Mark Sanford, a representative of Sen. Tim Scott, two members of Charleston County Council, the Berkeley County supervisor and a Berkeley County Council member, two members of the Mount Pleasant Town Council, Charleston County Parks and Recreation Executive Director Tom O'Rourke and a number of others. The DOT sent a delegation of five. Throughout the hour-long meeting, politeness prevailed. But the final result was a standoff. Despite the consensus in the room that changes should be made in both height and deck configuration, the DOT group insisted that changes in neither the deck configuration nor the height of the bridge would be possible without an 18-24 month delay and potential added cost. The project was to move forward, and will be on the DOT Commission's February agenda for approval.
We urge the DOT Commission to approve only a bridge design that is reconfigured to more safely serve all users, including bicyclists and pedestrians. We believe this can be done without having to rebid the project and incur added time and expense.
If not, this will be a failure, with the DOT missing the mark on numerous fronts. First, it missed the fact that both Mount Pleasant and Berkeley County are planning multi-use bike and pedestrian trails on each end of the bridge. Secondly, it has missed the fact that the U.S. Forest Service is seeing a huge uptick in the number of people using the Francis Marion Forest for recreational enjoyment, including those on bicycles. Thirdly, the DOT is missing the fact that the anticipated local population growth (including the pending Cainhoy development) means that new residents will require vastly increased recreation and transportation options. These options are not frills - they are regional economic and competitive necessities.
Carrying cars and trucks may be a bridge's central job. But our roads and bridges are not exclusively for cars and trucks. They are for people. They connect people and communities, allowing individuals to make transportation connections according to personal choices. They should encourage transportation choice, not constrain it.
We are counting on our key political players, including Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Scott, Rep. Sanford and state Sen. Larry Grooms, to weigh in at this 11th hour. We believe it is not in the taxpayers' best interests to spend $30-plus million on a bridge design we'll regret for 75 years.
Is it not worth it to pause, even at this late date, to find a way to build this bridge better - and less expensively?
Tom Bradford is director of Charleston Moves. Stephanie Hunt is board chair of the organization.