Last week, federal officials turned down a local grant request for funding to help build a bicycle and pedestrian bridge to connect West Ashley and downtown Charleston. It’s the second time a similar proposal has been rejected.
And while the decision is disappointing, it ought not to stop that critically important project — and other bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure needs — from moving forward.
Multiple bridges cross the Ashley River in Charleston County. None has a safe way for people to get across without a motor vehicle. That’s a glaring oversight in the broader effort to help more people take more trips without a car.
The bike and pedestrian bridge in question would have crossed the Ashley River near the T. Allen Legare Bridge between West Ashley and downtown Charleston.
It was sold as a compromise project after Charleston County Council nixed a plan to convert one lane of the existing bridge for non-car users. But really, a separate piece of infrastructure was the long-term plan from the start.
It’s just that building a new bridge takes a long time — witness the two years now lost waiting on federal financial assistance — and the need for a safe Ashley River crossing is urgent.
The Ashley River bike and pedestrian bridge is expected to cost about $22 million. It’s entirely feasible for County Council and state and city officials to work together to come up with that funding. But they shouldn’t stop there.
In many ways, the North Bridge between North Charleston and West Ashley is even more dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians. Without narrow maintenance paths like the ones on the Legare Bridge, people without cars are forced to walk across a raised median.
A bicyclist was killed in September attempting to do so.
According to Charleston police officials, getting across the North Bridge without a motor vehicle is illegal. That’s obviously not an acceptable situation for people who need to get between North Charleston and West Ashley without a car or without waiting on the bus.
There’s also no safe way to get from James Island to West Ashley or downtown Charleston on two feet or two wheels.
Pedestrians and bicyclists are banned entirely from the James Island connector and are forced to navigate precariously narrow paths on the bridge over the Wappoo Cut.
Relatively straightforward changes could likely make the connector safer for bicyclists — they were only officially banned on the bridge after a bicyclist was killed in 2011 — although the state DOT says it can’t likely be made safe for pedestrians.
Even if that’s the case, opening up the connector to bicyclists again would be a significant improvement.
Over the past few months, city and county officials who were staunchly opposed to the Legare Bridge lane conversion have expressed enthusiasm for the bike and pedestrian bridge proposal and a willingness to get creative in finding funds for it should the federal grant fall through.
Hopefully those words were sincere. We need the bridge, and other safe routes across the Ashley River too.