Charleston's single greatest hurdle to creating a safe Ashley River pedestrian crossing was cleared this week when leaders learned they would get an $18.1 million federal grant for a new bridge dedicated to foot and bike traffic.
But many more hurdles remain before it's actually finished, and even as local leaders celebrated their somewhat unexpected success in gaining the grant, they weren't ready to comment on what year it might open.
The grant application calls for completion by 2023 but city officials aren't committing to that date.
Katie Zimmerman, executive director of Charleston Moves, was one of the few willing to venture a guess.
"I'm operating under the assumption that this is going to be built within four years or even less than that," she said. "But I don't know."
Keith Benjamin, the city of Charleston's traffic and transportation director, said the first step will be coordinating with the U.S. Department of Transportation as to its expectations, then the city would meet with Charleston County transportation officials and the S.C. Department of Transportation to begin answering key questions, such as:
- Which government will build it?
- What are the projected timetables for permitting, design and construction?
- Will it hire one company to design and construct it or a separate design firm?
- How might any cost overruns be paid for?
Those questions didn't spoil the festive mood Thursday as Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, and others gathered under the Herbert Fielding Connector to thank the many people in elected office, on government staffs and in the nonprofit and private sectors who helped make it happen.
Cunningham said he was reeling when he got word the grant was approved. "It's a game-changer. It's a true game-changer," he said.
Their media event was held in an unimproved 2½-acre city park space just east of the new apartments at 35 Folly Road. The city quietly acquired the land during the apartment's approval process, and the complex also included a through route for the West Ashley Greenway to link Albermarle Road to the city park and eventually to the new bike-ped bridge.
"This greenspace here is a city park," Tecklenburg said. "It's like the Greenway to Nowhere and the park nobody knows about."
The $22 million project, which includes funding from the city, Charleston County and the Medical University of South Carolina, also will include intersection improvements at three spots, including:
- Where the West Ashley Bikeway and Greenway intersect at Savannah Highway and Wappoo Road.
- Where the West Ashley Greenway crosses Folly Road near Wesley Drive.
- Where the new bridge will enter the peninsula near Lockwood Drive and Bee Street.
Harry Lesesne, executive director of the Charleston Parks Conservancy, also helped lead the advocacy efforts for the bike-ped bridge grant. The application included those intersection improvements to help make it competitive by showing how the bridge would be connected.
"It's bigger than just the bridge," Lesesne said of the effort.
A recurring theme of Thursday's event was how many people worked to make it happen. Local leaders had hoped to get at least a $10 million federal grant toward the $22 million project, so they were elated when they heard Wednesday the full amount was approved. Not only was the South Carolina congressional delegation involved, but Tecklenburg also thanked Gov. Henry McMaster and S.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall.
"If there was ever a team sport, this is an example of it," Tecklenburg said. "If there's ever an example of persistence paying off, this is it."
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Benjamin acknowledged others, too, including those who have been injured and killed trying to walk or bike around the current U.S. Highway 17 bridges — and to the hundreds of people, businesses and organizations who wrote in support.
"Your letters, your calls, it mattered so much," he said. "It showed we were in unity about this project."