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Editorial: Engage public in plan for Ashley River bike-ped bridge

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New rendering (copy) (copy)

This rendering was included in Charleston's application for a federal grant for a new bike-ped bridge over the Ashley River, but it won't necessarily look like this. Provided

Almost a year after the city of Charleston was surprised to learn it had received an $18.1 million federal grant to build a new bike and pedestrian bridge over the Ashley River, the city finally has taken the next big step.

There are more big steps to come, and those should be taken with more transparency — and public input, particularly as far as its design — to ensure the project is as good as it can be.

City Council voted Tuesday to approve a $2 million deal with HDR Engineering Inc. for design-build contract support. Fortunately, this is a sign of progress. Unfortunately, an actual design-build contract for the project, currently projected at $22 million, probably won’t be placed on council members’ desks until sometime later next year; September 2021 is the deadline.

The prospect that design work won’t even begin until almost two years after the grant was announced is a regrettable if not particularly surprising sign of how slow government can work. With federal money comes federal regulations, and the city has been working with both the Federal Highway Administration and the S.C. Department of Transportation to ensure it’s following all appropriate federal rules. The deal placed before council members includes more than 200 pages.

Even this contract won’t be awarded until the FHWA sends a letter with its OK and the city has funding that Charleston County has agreed to.

The delay raises a question of whether the $22 million will be enough, as construction prices rarely drop, and whether a higher price tag — combined with pandemic-related budget pains — will create further delay.

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The contract not only is with HDR Engineering — a global engineering and architecture firm that worked on the Ravenel Bridge, Berkeley  County’s Roper St. Francis Hospital and the Leatherman Terminal — but also with 10 other companies that will be subconsultants.

We have advocated for the bridge for years, agreeing with supporters that the span would provide a safe path for bicyclists and pedestrians between West Ashley and downtown. The 0.4-mile standalone bridge would connect to the 10.5-mile West Ashley Greenway and 2.5-mile West Ashley Bikeway; it would represent a huge step toward the city’s broad goal of creating safer bike and pedestrian routes.

The advantage of a design-build approach, which the city will use instead of a more traditional design-bid-build process, is that certain construction work can begin before a design is complete — as it did with the new Arthur Ravenel Bridge more than a decade ago. In the next year, HDR will do aerial mapping, traffic studies and environmental studies and create a structural design, according to The Post and Courier’s Mikaela Porter. A more detailed schedule is expected by January, and a public information meeting is set for April.

Katie Zimmerman of Charleston Moves, the region’s main bike and pedestrian advocacy group, is glad the project appears to be on track for completion within a few years but hopes the city can do more to engage those who are anticipating its completion the most. “I think everybody has been feeling left out so far,” she says.

Since the new bridge could be an iconic link between the city’s historic peninsula and the region where most of its residents now live, the process of designing it must be inclusive and deliberate. Residents should have a chance to participate before plans go to the city’s Board of Architectural Review for approval.

The bridge also will serve a broader purpose. Its expected popularity will provide critical momentum for local leaders to fix the other weak links in the region’s bike-ped infrastructure, including safe passages near the North Bridge, James Island connector and Wappoo Cut.

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