Let data drive bike lane decision (copy)

Three bicycles make their way over the Ashley River Bridge using the temporary bike/pedestrian lane early in April 2016. (Brad Nettles/Staff)

It’s not a “vocal minority,” as Charleston County Council Chairman Vic Rawl recently described those who have called for a safe way for bicyclists and pedestrians to get across the Ashley River between West Ashley and downtown Charleston.

In fact, surveys suggest just the opposite.

Seventy percent of participants in the city’s recently completed Plan West Ashley initiative said they would rather walk or bike instead of drive on at least some trips if safe or improved routes were available.

Ninety-two and 91 percent of respondents to a 2016 Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments transportation survey said that “tax dollars should include pedestrian and bicycle amenities,” respectively.

About 90 percent of respondents to a 2013 state Department of Transportation survey said that expanding bicycle and pedestrian facilities was important.

In fact, city and regional planning documents have been calling for a safe route for bicycles across the Ashley River for more than four decades.

The demand is there. The political will, sadly, has not been — at least at the county level.

On Wednesday, Charleston officials learned that an application for a $12.2 million federal grant to build a separate bicycle and pedestrian bridge across the Ashley River failed to get approval. That means the city and county could be fully on the hook to cover the estimated $18.2 million cost.

The money must be found, and County Council should be largely responsible for finding it. After all, County Council is the only reason there’s not already a safe way for bicyclists and pedestrians to cross the Ashley River.

Last year, they voted down a years-old, extensively analyzed plan to convert one lane of the T. Allen Legare Bridge after a study found that doing so would add up to about a minute and a half to commutes at peak rush hour. They traded the safety and well-being of bicyclists and pedestrians for those few seconds.

But city officials, who have largely been in favor of a route across the Ashley, stepped up and said they would pursue a dedicated bridge. Really, that’s a better solution anyway. It’s just more expensive. Hence the federal grant effort.

The most obvious solution would be to use a portion of the county’s half-cent sales tax to pay for the bridge. It’s a necessary and potentially transformative transportation project that would help get significant numbers of cars off the road in a particularly bad spot for traffic. It would be money well-spent.

The half-cent sales tax question, which voters approved in 2016, states that the revenue may be used for “bike/pedestrian facilities” as well as other transportation projects.

The city of Charleston is preparing to make major improvements to bicycle facilities in downtown Charleston. At the same time, it’s facing a parking crisis felt most strongly by low-wage hospitality workers, many of whom live outside of the peninsula.

The first effort will be less successful and the second problem will be exacerbated without a safe way to get between West Ashley and downtown Charleston without a car.

Fortunately, Mr. Rawl appears to be in a minority among County Council members in hesitating to support the new project. A strong majority voted in August to coordinate with the state DOT and city officials to come up with another way to safely cross the Ashley.

The bridge idea should fit that bill.

Bicyclists and pedestrians for far too long have risked their lives to cross the Ashley River on a narrow, crumbling maintenance path. County officials have too long ignored their safety and stalled on straightforward solutions.

A bridge is the obvious way forward. Local officials need to figure out how to fund it.