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New study appears to doom Ashley River bridge bike lane conversion

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T. Allen Legare Bridge (copy)

A plan to convert one of the four lanes on the T. Allen Legare Bridge over the Ashley River to a bike and pedestrian path has remained in limbo since County Council voted to ask the state for more input. File/Staff

A new study casts big doubts about whether the T. Allen Legare Bridge over the Ashley River will ever have a lane converted for bike and pedestrian use.

The city and county of Charleston entered into an agreement with the state Department of Transportation to make the change, but the project has been deferred for three traffic studies that looked at its impact on vehicle traffic.

The latest study, presented to Charleston County, confirms that the delay would only be a minute or less during peak rush hour but also notes that would be enough to consider the bridge at a failing level of service.

Richard Turner, the county's project manager, said County Council will take up the issue on Aug. 17.

"Our recommendation right now is not to support the lane closure,” he said.

County Council Chairman Vic Rawl said Thursday he has not talked to his colleagues about the lane recently, but he knows at least three of them are strongly against the project. Rawl said he also is leaning against it.

"If the issue is Charleston County going to put money into the project, I’m going to vote no,” he said.

Last year, Charleston City Council voted 7-6 to proceed with the lane conversion on the bridge, which handles northbound traffic on U.S. Highway 17. The vote came after a consulting firm closed one lane to measure the resulting delays. It found that morning vehicular commuters would see about a minute added to their trip.

The county's new study, done by the engineering firm HDR, confirms that, noting Charleston-bound commuters on Folly Road would see an extra 57 seconds in the peak morning commute; those coming in on Savannah Highway would see 22 extra seconds of delay; and those coming down S.C. Highway 61 would see 12 more seconds. Those delays would rise to as much as 2¼ minutes on Folly by 2028.

But it also looked at how the delays would affect the level of service of the bridge and surrounding roads. Level of service is an engineering term meant to grade how well a road functions.

"It doesn't sound like a whole lot when you say it's just a minute (delay), but the percentage change in the travel time is a little bit more," Turner said. "We looked at it strictly from a level of service. When you have a density on a road that is that high and your level of service becomes that bad, then you start raising concerns about is it safe?"

"You're reducing the efficiency of the road. You're reducing the amount of space for merging action to happen," he added. "The total speed of the road goes down. Some folks will argue that speed reduction is a good thing, but one part of the report says we go from about a 35 mph road to about 25 mph by 2028."

Katie Zimmerman, director of the bike advocacy group Charleston Moves, said the study fails to factor in any benefit to those who aren't in a car but who want to cross the river. She said the lane conversion is still viable.

"Converting a lane is less expensive and time intensive than building an entirely new bridge or providing 24-7 and subsidized bus or ferry service," she said. "It is also far less dangerous than allowing people to continue to ride on the maintenance paths or in the lane with cars.

"The average delay to motorists was 34 seconds," she added. "Thirty-four seconds to save a life."

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who has supported the conversion, was out of the city Thursday but is expected to appear before County Council next week to discuss the issue, city spokesman Jack O'Toole said.

But the county's support is key because the original agreement anticipated the county would cover the approximately $2 million cost of the conversion through its half-cent sales tax.

It's unclear if the new study would affect the S.C Department of Transportation's willingness to consider the lane conversion. Spokesman Pete Poore said Thursday he is unsure if DOT officials have had a chance to review it.

For decades, cycling and pedestrian advocates have sought a safe way across the Ashley River with no progress — despite the popularity of the bike-ped lane on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which opened across the Cooper River in 2005.

The Ashley bridge lane seemed to have momentum after City Council voted to proceed last summer, but County Council voted 7-2 in September to seek more information.

If the lane does die, it's unclear what might happen next. Some have floated the idea of a stand-alone bike and pedestrian bridge, but such a project would cost many more millions of dollars and take several years to get from permitting to design to completion. Like the other two U.S. Highway 17 bridges over the river, any standalone bridge also would have to allow large boat traffic through.

Several years ago, the county tried to design a new cantilevered lane off the Legare bridge, but that plan was scrapped because the added weight would cause the drawbridge mechanism to fail.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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