West Ashley folks get to exercise free speech on bridge bike path

Traffic, including a moped signaling a lane change and a bicycle, streams across the Ashley River Bridge from West Ashley toward downtown in November.

You'll have one more chance to speak your piece before the county puts the pedal to the metal on that West Ashley bridge bike lane.

After that, no griping if you don't like the results.

The idea to shut down one of the T. Allen Legare Bridge's four lanes and convert it to a bike and pedestrian path passed Charleston City Council last year on an 8-5 vote, with several West Ashley council members opposed to it.

Their concerns were quickly drowned out by about 100 biking enthusiasts.

Since then, those council members have hoped their constituents would get another chance to protest - and lobbied the county to hold a public hearing before beginning construction.

New County Council Chairman Elliott Summey says it's on for April or May, when the design for the lane is finished.

"We promised a public hearing when the design phase was finished, and that's what we're going to do," Summey says. "Everybody's voice will be heard."

So if you don't like this idea, go and let 'em have it. Otherwise you will end up like a lot of folks in Mount Pleasant and Summerville, who missed important votes in the past few years and are not happy with the outcome.

Unfortunately, this bike lane thing has become a huge political fight.

The bikers versus drivers consternation has become an all-too-common theme in Charleston, which is trying to encourage alternative modes of transportation - as it should.

The problem is math.

Two decades ago, the state Department of Transportation added a fourth lane to the Legare Bridge because the traffic from West Ashley into downtown had increased dramatically. Well, things have only become more crowded as more and more people realize this is one of the best places to live in the country.

Darn it.

In the past decade, traffic on the bridge has increased 38 percent, meaning more than 56,000 cars cross it every day. Break it down - unless 14,000 people start biking to work, traffic will increase for the other three lanes exponentially.

Traffic engineers say the commute time will only grow by 13 seconds. But some council members in West Ashley fear that's not the case. They consider that prediction is a tad on the slight side.

"I work four miles from the bridge, and I see traffic backed up in front of my office every day," says Councilman Keith Waring. "If you do this, it'll probably be backed up to Bees Ferry Road."

Waring says the idea doesn't pass the 40- or 50-year test, something Charleston officials often invoke. In other words, is this a solution viable for at least that long?

The answer here is "no." Although the DOT has approved this plan, they reserve the right to take the lane back, and predict they will have to do so by 2020.

The county recently said it won't even finish work on the lane for another 18 months. So, Waring asks, do you spend nearly $2 or $3 million for a bike lane that you might use for three and a half years?

Waring is not anti-biking. In fact, he rides one himself.

But like a lot of people, he isn't going to ride one downtown on business. And a lot of others probably wouldn't, either. Not in this climate.

Waring sees the need for a bike lane. He and some West Ashley councilman want to spend more money to build a bike lane on the James Island Connector. For $10 million, they estimate, you could add a bike and pedestrian lane that would last for decades, and not cost us a lane for cars.

But no one has jumped on that bandwagon. When City Council debated this, the crowd was filled with folks who overwhelmingly support the Legare option, short-term as it is. Few folks from West Ashley neighborhoods showed up.

Mayor Joe Riley says the plan got substantial scrutiny last year, and he believes most people support it.

"I feel confident the project will move forward, and the design will be very impressive," Riley says.

But City Councilman Aubry Alexander suspects the attendance at this spring meeting will be very high, especially when you consider that Savannah Highway and Highway 61 are two of the most congested roads in the state.

"I've heard from a lot of citizens telling me how displeased they are," Alexander says. "If they hold a public hearing, I believe the citizens of West Ashley will show up."

And if they don't, they can gripe for that extra "13 seconds" they are sitting in traffic every morning.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com