T. Allen Legare Bridge (copy) (copy)

A bicyclist (far left) without benefit of a bike lane crosses the T. Allen Legare Bridge over the Ashley River. Wade Spees/Staff.

After decades of controversy and failed proposals, it might still be possible for cyclists and walkers to get a safe path across the Ashley River.

A stand-alone Ashley River bridge on U.S. Highway 17 is the latest idea. It will be considered Thursday at a meeting of the Charleston County Council Finance Committee.

Council directed that the city of Charleston, county and S.C. Department of Transportation staff get together to weigh alternatives to putting a bike path on the T. Allen Legare Bridge or the James Island connector. From that gathering emerged the idea of a new bridge for foot and bike traffic.

"The County Council members have heard from our mayor on this. We're hoping for favorable support," said Keith Benjamin, city director of transportation. "The city and county have come together and figured out a solution."

The solution provides for "non-motorized connectivity" between downtown and the West Ashley Greenway without interfering with traffic flow, he said. 

Major funding for the project will be sought from the U.S. Department of Transportation with the city and county providing matching funds.

The county and city are looking at "multiple alternatives" for the bike and pedestrian path over the river, said County Councilman Joe Qualey. 

"Which I certainly support, and I think it would be great if we could identify something like this and make it happen as soon as possible," he said. 

If the Finance Committee approves, the county would provide a letter of support for the city's application for federal funding of the project.

The Finance Committee meets at 5 p.m. at the Lonnie Hamilton Public Services Building.

Katie Zimmerman of bicycle advocacy group Charleston Moves said the free-standing bridge is a great idea but she would also like to see a short-term solution such as a dedicated lane for bikers on the Legare Bridge.

The bike path project has been in the pipeline for decades and now will be going through a lengthy approval process.

"This has been studied for 40 years," she said.

The city and county entered into an agreement with the DOT to build the bike lane, but the project was deferred for three traffic studies that looked at its impact on vehicle traffic. 

In August, the council Finance Committee, which includes all council members, voted to send a letter to the DOT withdrawing its support for converting a lane of the Legare Bridge to bikers, walkers and joggers. It had been expected that the county would cover the approximately $2 million cost of the project through its half-cent sales tax.

At the same time, the committee expressed its support for putting the bike lane on the James Island connector. 

Cycling advocates have long sought a safe way across the Ashley River. Those calls got louder after the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge opened across the Cooper River in 2005, with a new 10-foot-wide bike and pedestrian lane. 

A few years ago, the city, county and state agreed to move forward with a new plan to convert one of the Legare bridge's four northbound lanes to a bike and pedestrian lane. The southbound U.S. 17 bridge only has three lanes of traffic. A traffic study showed the change would cause only about a 1-minute delay for motorists during the morning rush hour.

The project dates to 1976 when city and regional planners first promoted the idea of an Ashley River crossing for bikers and walkers, according to the Charleston Moves website.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 843-937-5711.