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Editorial: Find ways for a safe bike-ped crossing over the North Bridge

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Bridges built only for cars and trucks remain the single largest impediment to making the Charleston region more walkable and bikable. While progress has been slow, there are new signs of hope.

Late last year, Charleston got the unexpected good news that it had won an $18.1 million federal grant to build a stand-alone bike-ped bridge just south of the U.S. Highway 17 drawbridges over the Ashley River. That project is now ramping up.

But the North Bridge over the Ashley, which links Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Cosgrove Avenue, has remained an even greater challenge to tackle — and also is the site of more recent cycling deaths. On Thursday, Charleston County Council took a small but important step toward a new study that could lead to a solution there, too.

Council members agreed to seek bids for a study of bike-ped access over the Ashley River at that spot. The study is expected to evaluate different options in light of current traffic counts and point toward the best one.

While Thursday’s vote was unanimous, there still was some skepticism, and it remains to be seen what County Council ultimately will do when told of the study’s cost. The concept was studied in 2008, and that study was updated in 2011. The update found that removing a traffic lane would “effectively reduce the level of service and capacity for northbound motorist traffic causing delay.” Installing a bike-ped lane in the bridge’s center “is unorthodox in terms of roadway engineering design and standard practice” and also would cause delays.

Councilman Dickie Schweers asked what such a new study might cost and asked staff to voice an opinon. “I’d hate to see us spend $100,000 on something that y’all know going in is not possible,” he said.

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Indeed, the challenges on the North Bridge — formally the World War II Memorial Bridge — seem great. First, repurposing a lane on the bridge for bike-ped use appears to be a political nonstarter because of traffic delays.

And then there’s the issue of safely guiding pedestrians and cyclists past the Cosgrove-Interstate 26 interchange in North Charleston, which lies just to the east of the bridge. Councilman Brantley Moody noted, “Nobody in their right mind would steer people into that.”

Perhaps the study will show a stand-alone bridge is the best solution here or whether it’s possible to append a lightweight bike-ped lane to the bridge, something akin to what was built into the new Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge 15 years ago.

Katie Zimmerman, executive director of Charleston Moves, said progress along the route took a big step forward in 2014, when the city of Charleston opened Northbridge Park along with a multiuse path from the base of the bridge back into West Ashley.

“There are a lot of questions, but I’m very encouraged,” Ms. Zimmerman said of the planned study. “The fact that council recognizes that this is a discussion that needs to continue, I appreciate that. I’m very confident there’s a solution. It just might take a while.”

Unfortunately, too many people still believe that only those in a motorized vehicle deserve a safe bridge crossing. It’s a mindset that prevailed for much of the 20th century and one that has made our communities poorer as a result. Only when public officials place equal value on the safety and rights of walkers and cyclists — which they seem to be moving toward, ever so slowly — will we change that.

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