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Charleston's planned $22M pedestrian bridge integral to city's long-term plans

Ashley River Bridge

A bicyclist rides over the Ashley River Memorial Bridge on Monday, March 29, 2021. Brad Nettles/Staff

Charleston's planned $22 million pedestrian bridge over the Ashley River will stand as a major accomplishment on its own once completed, but the structure is expected to serve as more than just a new connection between West Ashley and the peninsula. 

The project is viewed as a major stepping stone in many of Charleston's other long-term goals, including redeveloping West Ashley, reducing the city's carbon footprint, enhancing bike and pedestrian safety and linking the city's largest population center to its biggest employment hub. 

When the city applied for an $18 million grant to help build the bridge in 2019, it explained to federal officials the numerous ways the span is expected to fit into Charleston's plans and benefit the city's residents. It also noted the large number of city, county and regional studies in the past that have highlighted a pedestrian bridge over the Ashley River among their top priorities. 

"The path will connect citizens to jobs without the use of a car, increase neighborhood desirability, support the ongoing revitalization of West Ashley, and make Charleston a more attractive city for the next generation of business owners and employees," the grant application said. 

The scale of the proposed pedestrian bridge isn't very large compared with the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which towers over the other side of the peninsula. Once completed, the new bridge is expected to traverse less than half a mile of water directly south of the T. Allen Legare Bridge.

Still, Councilman Mike Seekings said the new crossing could be one of the most important transportation projects the city has undertaken in the past two decades because of how integral it is to Charleston's future strategies for growth and development.

"It's a project that checks all of the boxes," said Seekings, who serves as chairman of the city's transportation committee. "Any complete city is a connected city."  

There's a lot of work that still needs to be done before Charleston residents and visitors can bike across the river or take in a sunset from the center of the new span.

Ashley River Pedestrian Bridge

Workers with HDR Inc. and Mid-Atlantic Drilling Inc. drill test bores in the marsh on the West Ashley side of the Ashley River on March 25, 2021, in preparation for the start of construction of the Ashley River bicycle and pedestrian bridge. Brad Nettles/Staff

City officials are preparing the environmental permits. They need to settle on a design that will allow boats to pass under the bridge. And they won't choose a contractor for the project until later this year. 

But that hasn't stopped city leaders from contemplating the changes and opportunities the project could soon bring to both sides of the river

An economic connection

The peninsula may be considered the heart of Charleston, but West Ashley continues to serve as the city's population center and largest bedroom community. 

According to the most recent estimates, nearly 67,000 people — roughly 43 percent of the city's population — call West Ashley home. The vast majority of those residents, however, work somewhere else, including a substantial number who commute into downtown Charleston every week. 

West Ashley bike.jpg

A bicyclist rides over the Ashley River Memorial Bridge on Monday, March 29, 2021 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Hundreds of restaurant workers, hotel staffers, government employees and medical professionals use the existing bridges between West Ashley and the peninsula to get to and from their jobs. But that infrastructure doesn't make it easy for people to walk or bike into work.

Anyone who doesn't drive downtown currently navigates a 4-foot-wide sidewalk that is exposed to the thousands of cars and trucks that pass over the river every day. Most people who use that route are either daring or have no other choice. 

That is expected to change once the pedestrian bridge is in place, and Charleston leaders already anticipate the benefits the project will provide to the city's workforce.

In its grant application, the city pointed out that workers in Charleston make, on average, around $43,000 per year. Adding the stand-alone pedestrian bridge, city officials said, could make it easier for more of those people to avoid the more than $1,000 per month that many Charleston residents currently spend on transportation costs. 

The most recent estimates suggests fewer than 6 percent of Charleston's residents bike or walk to work. But Katie Zimmerman, executive director of Charleston Moves, a nonprofit that advocates on transportation issues, said adding infrastructure like the pedestrian bridge is likely to shift those numbers substantially. 

"We have to get rid of these gaps," Zimmerman said. "We have to start connecting these communities." 

The new bridge is expected to dump commuters onto the peninsula directly next to Charleston's hospital district, which houses the largest concentration of employees anywhere in the city. Together, the Medical University of South Carolina, Roper St. Francis and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center employ a combined 20,000 people in that area. 

Even if a small portion of those workers utilize the new bridge, it could also provide substantial benefits to the hospitals and other businesses downtown. Matt Desmond, a vice president for Roper St. Francis, said one of the biggest challenges his company faces on the peninsula is parking.

Roper maintains around 1,300 parking spots for its employees and patients at the downtown campus, Desmond said, but space can be tight at times. The pedestrian bridge, he said, could alleviate some of the pressure in the hospital's existing garages and surface lots if enough employees feel comfortable enough walking or biking to work.  

City officials hope the same will be true for other parking structures on the peninsula. 

Revitalizing West Ashley 

The pedestrian bridge may be the "missing link" Charleston officials have been waiting for, but it's the West Ashley Greenway and West Ashley Bikeway that are expected to serve as the backbone to the city's plans. 

Those paths, which cover a combined 11 miles of inner and outer West Ashley, will immediately tie the new bridge into an existing trail system that can safely feed thousands of people to and from the new river crossing. 

The Greenway and Bikeway are already popular features for residents in West Ashley, who use those protected pedestrian lanes to exercise and move from one community to another. But city officials expect the routes to take on far more importance once the new bridge is opened. 

Not only will the trails serve as the commuter highways into downtown, they could help to lure more Charleston residents and visitors across the river in the opposite direction. That foot and bike traffic, in turn, could help drive new business and redevelopment in parts of West Ashley, which has been an aspiration of city leaders for years. 

In their federal grant application, Charleston officials noted that roughly 613 existing businesses in West Ashley were within two to three blocks of the Greenway, which parallels Savannah Highway to very outskirts of the city. That accessibility could make the commercial districts along that route more attractive for developers and other business owners. 

Eric Pohlman, who serves as the West Ashley coordinator for the city's planning department, said the new bridge is expected to turn the Greenway and the Bikeway into "economic generators" for the city. “It really does unlock a lot of the area,” he said.

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The city of Charleston plans to build a new bike and pedestrian bridge over the Ashley River. The city also plans to upgrade intersections where the West Ashley Greenway crosses Folly Road and Wappoo Road. File/Staff

The city, Pohlman added, is also considering how it can better direct people who are using the trails to nearby restaurants and storefronts.  

To prepare for more people walking and biking, the city also plans to spend $460,000 to upgrade several intersections where the Greenway crosses Folly Road and Wappoo Road. Separately, the city also has plans to overhaul the pedestrian crossings along Savannah Highway where the Greenway meets up with the Bikeway.  

Those improvements are exactly what the city envisioned when it created its redevelopment goals for West Ashley in 2018.

Councilman Peter Shahid, who leads the committee on West Ashley revitalization, said two of the biggest priorities that West Ashley residents emphasized during that planning process was safer transportation options for pedestrians and added connections to other parts of the city. 

“This fits right into the plan,” Shahid said. “You’re connecting the peninsula with West Ashley. You’re connecting neighborhoods with other neighborhoods.”

Cutting the carbon footprint

The two bridges that carry vehicles over the Ashley River handle more than 63,600 cars and trucks per day, according to data collected by the city. 

The new pedestrian crossing can't eliminate all of that traffic, but city officials hope the project will alleviate some of the congestion during rush hour along Savannah Highway, St. Andrews Boulevard and the Septima P. Clark Parkway. 

In its grant application, the city estimated the pedestrian bridge could cut out more than 66 million vehicle miles over a 30-year period. 

Achieving that number will obviously depend on how many people use the bridge and how frequently they choose to bike or walk. The goal, however, fits perfectly into the city's new Climate Action Plan, which seeks to address the city's role in global warming. 

Katie McKain, Charleston's director of sustainability, said the new bridge will allow the city to shrink the amount of heat-trapping gases it pumps into the atmosphere every year. 

Cars and trucks are the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Charleston. The exhaust coming out of tailpipes accounts for 25 percent of the emissions attributed to the city government and Charleston residents. 

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This rendering of the bike and pedestrian bridge shows where the span would cross the Ashley River. The city, however, is still deciding what the structure will look like. Provided

"Any time you are thinking about sustainability, you need to be thinking about sustainable transportation options," McKain said. "This will be a big project that we will see a lot of positive results from."

The bridge, and the upgrades to the Greenway and Bikeway, should make it easier for Charleston residents to eliminate some of the trips they take to work, the grocery store or other destinations in a vehicle. And there's reason to believe that people are eager to do just that. 

When the city surveyed West Ashley residents in 2018, 96 percent of the people who attended public meetings said they used a car to travel almost everywhere. Yet 70 percent of those same individuals said they would walk or bike to more destinations if the routes were safer. 

They will soon get that chance. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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