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Editorial: Ashley Phosphate audit a good step, but real change is needed down the road

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Ashley Phosphate Road

Ashley Phosphate Road has one of the highest traffic counts among major roads in Charleston County, but it also has many pedestrians and cyclists, which make for a lethal mix. Staff/file 

Those who often use Ashley Phosphate Road can take heart that the state is finishing an audit about safety problems there, but they also should keep pressure on state and local officials to make sure the audit’s findings ultimately lead to meaningful changes that will save lives.

After South Carolina earned the lousy distinction of being one of the nation’s most dangerous places to walk and bike, the state Department of Transportation took the encouraging step of identifying 10 of its most dangerous roads and auditing them to see what safety steps would improve things.

Five of those 10 roads were in Charleston County, including King, Meeting, St. Philip and Calhoun streets downtown, but the fifth, North Charleston’s busy Ashley Phosphate Road, may be the most lethal, as pedestrians and cyclists must navigate six lanes of relatively fast-moving traffic as well as a central turn lane. The audit  remains in draft form but should be released soon. The problem is it’s unclear when, or even if, its recommendations will be acted on.

Katie Zimmerman of Charleston Moves was among the advocates and government officials participating in the audit, and she said unlike downtown Charleston streets, there is a lot of public right of way to work with to improve safety on Ashley Phosphate. Enabling pedestrians and cyclists to cross the street more safely is a particularly urgent issue, as the street also serves as a major bus route.

While DOT has allocated $5 million a year to address bike and pedestrian safety — a sum that paid for these safety audits — the next stage of funding is less clear. Having identified the problems, DOT should act expeditiously to address them; local officials must keep pressing the state for action and cooperate in whatever way it can.

Those who participated in the audit got a close-up look at children, cyclists and others using the thoroughfare, and sometimes jaywalking across it. “You can’t trust what drivers are going to do at those intersections,” Ms. Zimmerman said. “There were a ton of people out, including children. People in uniforms going back and forth to work. Cyclists on the sidewalk. It’s a highly used corridor for people biking and walking and busing. And it’s killing people.”

The audit already has helped bring some needed if only minor changes. Ms. Zimmerman said when local and state officials walked the road with the consultant, they found a few crossing signals that were not functioning properly. Those were fixed right away, and the agency was asked to post signs to tell pedestrians who to contact if the signals malfunction again.

There’s no mistaking the challenge that DOT has on its hands. It operates one of the nation’s largest road networks (many of South Carolina’s local roads are actually owned and maintained by the state), and lawmakers often haven’t given it the money needed to keep up with maintenance and new demand. But the agency also has a long-standing and unfortunate reputation for serving only the motoring public, not the public in general — especially those members of the public who walk and bike.

Acting on these audits — and ensuring that meaningful fixes are made to South Carolina’s most lethal roads for pedestrians and cyclists — is a significant step the agency must take to help change that.

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