The state gave a green light to convert a lane on one of the Ashley River bridges to a bike and pedestrian path, a move that allows planners to work on the project's design and search for money to pay for it.
Secretary of Transportation Robert St. Onge informed city and county leaders Friday about the agency's decision and pledged staff to work on the project.
Because the state owns the bridges, it could have nixed the project.
But the Transportation Department agreed with a study that found a lane could be set aside for pedestrians and bicycles without significant disruption to vehicle traffic.
"This is a go, and it's really exciting," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said.
Riley said a safe path between West Ashley and the heart of downtown's medical complex will be "a game-changer" that will "be huge for recreational usage and also for commuting."
Preliminary plans call for one lane on the T. Allen Legare Bridge, which funnels U.S. Highway 17 traffic from West Ashley into downtown Charleston, to be reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists. The project would require some kind of barrier and significant reorganization of intersections, particularly on the peninsula side, Riley said.
Planners haven't come up with any ballpark costs yet, Riley said, adding that city and county officials were waiting for the state's decision first.
Now the hunt for funding can begin, he said. Money likely would come from a combination of city, county, state and federal funds, he said.
"This is great news," said Tom Bradford, director of Charleston Moves, a group that's pushed for more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly options for area residents.
Bradford predicted that the future bike lane will become even more popular than the busy pedestrian lane on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River. "It's flat and short and immediately connects a population center with MUSC, Roper Hospital and the College of Charleston."
City planners have long been trying to find ways to provide pedestrians and bikers with a way in and out of the western side of peninsular Charleston.
Engineers originally focused on a plan to build a separate cantilevered bridge off one of the existing bridges. They threw out that idea after studies said the bridges couldn't handle the stress.
Riley said a resident suggested using an existing lane on one of the two bridges instead. "We have three lanes going out (of the city) and four lanes coming in with essentially the same traffic, so it seemed like a logical approach."
In his letter to the city, St. Onge said the state doesn't consider the bike lane a permanent solution to the area's traffic needs because of "traffic growth and additional demand for 'throughput' " as West Ashley grows.
Riley said the completion of the Mark Clark Expressway would mitigate some of the increase in traffic on those bridges.