Plans for a safe bike and pedestrian crossing over the Ashley River got tripped up recently as Charleston leaders learned they weren't getting a $12.2 million federal grant toward its $18.2 million estimated cost.
Cycling advocates say they now plan to approach city, county and state officials to urge them to find a new way to fund it, possibly through the county's half-cent transportation sales tax.
"Let’s take half-cent sales tax money to build this thing," said Charleston City Councilman Mike Seeking, one of the project's biggest supporters. "We have to do something. We can’t wait on the kindness of somebody else at this point.”
The county previously rejected a plan to convert one of the T. Allen Legare Bridge's four lanes into the city of Charleston for bike and ped use, citing a study showing the lane's loss would lead to an uptick in morning commuting times.
It's unclear if the county would be willing to spend more on a bridge, County Council Chairman Vic Rawl said, adding, "I don't see any major effort by council to fund it, to be honest with you."
The proposed bike-ped bridge emerged as a compromise between those wanting a safe crossing and those wanting to keep all existing travel lanes for cars and trucks. It would cross the river just south of the Legare bridge and like the nearby drawbridges, could be opened for large vessels to pass.
But its relatively large price tag, more than $10 million more than the previous lane conversion plan, looms as a stumbling block.
Local officials had hoped the federal government would pick up two-thirds of the cost through its Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program. But the Charleston project was not among the new grants the federal government announced last week.
"We need to take care of this," said Katie Zimmerman of Charleston Moves, a nonprofit bike-ped advocacy. "What does that look like exactly?"
If nothing else, Zimmerman said the process of applying for the federal grant got the city, county and state to go on record recognizing the need.
The county already has committed $3 million toward its construction, the city committed $1.5 million, and Charleston Moves pledged to find donors willing to contribute another $1.5 million.
"I'm confident we'll all be able to sit down and come up with next steps," she said.
The city's new West Ashley Revitalization Plan calls for upgrading bike and pedestrian access across the suburban region, adding that West Ashley needs better connections "which could include a pedestrian/bike bridge." About 70 percent of those taking a related survey said they would walk or bike the area for certain trips if safer routes were available.
Seekings said the federal grant was a long shot, but the half-cent sales tax is not.
"This is clearly a transportation project, and it’s one project that everyone absolutely agrees needs to be done,” he said.
Rawl said while the bike lane is supported by a "vocal minority," it would have to compete against other needed transportation projects.
"It's a competitive, competitive area," he said. "I don't see the enthusiasm."
Meanwhile, the city may try again for a TIGER grant next year, city spokesman Jack O'Toole said. “It’s not unusual for these kinds of grants to be awarded on the second or even third try," he added.
Cycling advocates have struggled for years to improve access between downtown and West Ashley. One study showed the James Island connector could be made safer for bicyclists at a cost of $4 million, but that bike access still would not be suitable for younger cyclists because of its relatively steep grades and several on and off ramps.
An earlier proposal to cantilever a 10-foot-wide lane off the Legare bridge was shelved after an engineering study found the bridge's drawbridge mechanism could not handle the extra weight.
The proposal to scrap the conversion of one lane of traffic (giving the northbound bridge the same number of lanes as the southbound bridge) came after a traffic study found the lane's loss would create delays of a minute or less during peak rush hour — enough to give it a failing level of service grade.