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Editorial: Ashley River bike and pedestrian bridge remains a necessity

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Bike bridge (copy)

A rendering of the proposed non-motorized transportation bridge across the Ashley River between West Ashley and the Charleston peninsula was included in an application for federal grant money submitted in July.

On Friday, Charleston officials submitted for the third time an application for federal grant money to build a long-needed bicycle and pedestrian bridge between West Ashley and downtown Charleston. We hope the cliché proves true in this case.

Certainly, local officials and advocates for a better mix of mobility options have done their homework three — or more — times over by now. The case for building the bridge is particularly compelling.

At least 100 bicyclists and pedestrians have been injured on or near the Ashley River bridges over the past five years, according to Charleston Moves director Katie Zimmerman. But those are just the accidents that victims have reported.

The narrow maintenance paths on those aging bridges are barely wide enough for a single person, much less a person walking a bicycle or more than one pedestrian.

But Charleston County Council rejected in 2017 a sensible and temporary plan to convert one lane of the T. Allen Legare Bridge for people on foot or on bikes. And while that remains a disappointing decision, a dedicated bridge is unquestionably an ideal long-term solution.

The application process for this particular grant program is intensely competitive. Last year only 91 of 851 requests were approved for funding.

In many ways this is frustrating. Projects built with taxpayer dollars should undoubtedly be subjected to plenty of scrutiny, including an explanation of the economic and public safety benefits of new infrastructure. Really, we don’t do enough of that.

But the BUILD grant program accounts for just $900 million in a broader federal transportation budget that last year reached more than $86 billion, according to the Congressional Research System.

Most federal transportation spending is on roads and highways. Even from the far smaller pool of BUILD grant money, a disproportionate amount went to car infrastructure like interchanges, overpasses and widenings last year.

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Obviously, there is tremendous unmet demand for more innovative transportation options — better mass transit, safer bike and pedestrian facilities — and the proportion of federal spending dedicated to those projects should reflect that demand.

Of course it’s also ultimately inefficient to ask federal transportation officials, who can’t possibly be expected to travel to 851 or more cities and towns each year, to be the sole factor in determining what useful and potentially lifesaving projects get funding.

That’s why it’s encouraging that Charleston County voters have twice taken matters into our own hands by approving the use of sales tax for transportation projects.

This bike and pedestrian bridge is a project of relatively modest cost — about $22 million — that would have a transformative impact on mobility. If federal funds aren’t forthcoming this time around, we should find the money locally.

Like the misguided effort to build the rest of I-526 across James and Johns islands, a new bridge over the Ashley River wasn’t one of the several projects listed when voters approved the second half-cent transportation sales tax in 2016.

Unlike 526, however, a bike and pedestrian bridge could almost certainly be paid for using some of those funds intended to go toward non-car infrastructure without the risk of leaving other projects stranded.

We hope, however, this conversation will not be necessary. Charleston has made a tremendously compelling case for a safe Ashley River crossing for bicyclists and pedestrians three times now — not to mention in many other contexts over the past few decades.

It’s time to build the bridge.

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