Bike lane for Legare Bridge gets farther and farther away

The bike and pedestrian lane on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge has proven to be a hit with residents of the Lowcountry and beyond.

Five years after Lowcountry cyclists scored their biggest victory with the bike and pedestrian lane on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, it's still dicey biking across the Ashley River.

And that might not change anytime soon.

At least not unless government decides to do something unprecedented -- take a lane of traffic away from cars and trucks and give it to pedestrians and bikers.

The city and county of Charleston had hoped to build a cantilevered section off the bridge for bikers and pedestrians.

The county began the necessary engineering work and the bad news arrived a few weeks ago: It's just not feasible.

The problem has to do with the design of the T. Allen Legare Jr. bridge -- the newer drawbridge carrying traffic from West Ashley to downtown.

The part of the bridge that opens -- called the bascule section -- is carefully balanced, and once a motor starts it in motion, gravity soon takes over and opens it the rest of the way. The engineers calculated that adding a cantilevered section would add too much weight and prevent the bridge from working.

Deputy Charleston County Administrator Kurt Taylor says the county has asked the state Department of Transportation to put the bridge on its replacement list, adding, "That is still the preferred solution."

But Taylor says the county also is working with the city on other ideas.

They've considered a stand-alone bridge for bikes and pedestrians, but Mayor Joe Riley says that would cost too much and could be impossible to get the necessary permit from the U.S. Coast Guard.

City Traffic and Transportation Director Hernan Pena says it might be possible to replace just the bascule section of the Legare bridge, but that would trigger a Federal

Highway Administration review.

And he says there's a good chance such a review ultimately would require the whole bridge to be replaced because it has other problems, such as scouring around its underwater foundations.

The city also is looking at the idea of taking a lane of traffic and giving it to cyclists and pedestrians.

The idea isn't radical in this sense. The World War I Memorial Bridge that takes U.S. Highway 17 traffic south -- out of downtown to West Ashley -- has only three lanes.

The Legare bridge has four. Does there really need to be more lanes in one direction than the other?

"We need every lane of traffic we have on that bridge," Pena says. "If we were to assume hypothetically we would take one lane, we feel it would not be as safe, it would not be as convenient, it would not be perceived by cyclists as the amenity that you have on the Ravenel bridge."

"Obviously, this is a work in progress," Riley adds. "We are committed to the bike and pedestrian crossing. Whatever is the best way to achieve it in a reasonable period of time is what we want to do. It's one of those things that started out appearing to be relatively easy to accomplish, and it's now proven to be very difficult."

It's understandable that public officials would hesitate to take away a traffic lane and risk being blamed for causing congestion.

But here's a chance for the Lowcountry's growing cycling community to apply pressure of its own.

Do we really want to wait however many years it will take to study, engineer, fund and construct a replacement for the Legare bridge?

Cycling advocates successfully pushed for the Ravenel bike lane with bumper stickers saying, "Can't Wait to Bike the New Bridge!"

How about one that reads, "Can't Wait to Bike the Other Bridge"?

Robert Behre may be reached at 937-5771 or by fax at 937-5579. His e-mail address is rbehre@postandcourier.com, and his mailing address is 134 Columbus St., Charleston, SC 29403.