E. Cooper trail a bold vision

Bicyclists ride along a section of the West Ashley Greenway in February. The East Cooper Trail would provide a similar path winding from the Cooper River to the Santee River. (Brad Nettles/File)

Plans to better accommodate bicyclists in the Charleston area stir up plenty of public conversation, both favorable and unfavorable. Some projects, like the West Ashley Greenway, enjoy broad support. Others, like a bike and pedestrian lane across the Ashley River, are a tougher sell.

But no plan has been quite so ambitious as a proposal by the East Cooper Land Trust to build 82 miles of recreational bike trail stretching from the Cooper River across Mount Pleasant to Sullivan’s Island, the Isle of Palms and Awendaw to the Santee River.

The Land Trust will present a study of its plan, created in partnership with the town of Mount Pleasant, at a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Alhambra Hall. How the effort proceeds from there will depend on the level of community support.

That’s because there will be plenty of challenges.

If built according to current plans, the East Cooper trail would stretch roughly 10 times further than the West Ashley Greenway.

With limited public green space, finding available right-of-way could be difficult. And building portions of the trail running through areas outside of Mount Pleasant’s jurisdiction will require cooperation from the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission.

The town is also struggling with a recreation crunch right now. An ordinance passed in August raised Recreation Department fees to cover persistent shortfalls. Residents will vote on a referendum in November that would raise property taxes to provide an additional $2.5 million per year for new fields and facilities, among other projects.

The East Cooper Trail isn’t currently slated for funding should the recreation referendum pass, but it could potentially be a beneficiary down the road. It’s certainly worth consideration.

After all, the benefits are hard to deny.

Mount Pleasant remains a heavily car-dependent community despite some advances in improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. An attractive off-road path through the heart of town could shift that dependency.

The Land Trust study estimates that the number of Mount Pleasant residents who walk or bike to work could increase by about 3 percent once the trail is built, based on trends in similar municipalities around the Southeast. Even a substantially smaller increase would save hundreds of thousands of miles of car trips each year.

The trail would also offer plenty of recreational value. Current plans call for a mostly off-road path connecting popular destinations like the Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park, the Shem Creek boardwalk, Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms and a portion of the Francis Marion National Forest.

By the Land Trust’s estimate, more than 100,000 people would live within walking or biking distance of the trail. It would provide tangible benefits for the town’s quality of life.

A bold and complex project like the East Cooper Trail won’t be built overnight, and there are still numerous critical details to be worked out. East Cooper residents will need to work closely with local governments and the East Cooper Land Trust to put together as effective and beneficial a plan as possible.

That effort should start now, before any more green space is lost.