On its surface, the plan was simple: Close one of four car lanes on the T. Allen Legare Bridge connecting West Ashley to peninsular Charleston and reserve it for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Tuesday night, City Council approved the plan in an 8-5 vote, capping off more than a decade of relentless advocacy from local bicyclists and their representatives. By the time the final votes were cast, bike advocates had rallied to the cause en masse, barrelfuls of ink had been shed in newspaper editorials, and Charleston County had spent $630,000 commissioning studies on behalf of the city and the county. Raising the stakes on the final day of debate Tuesday, County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor informed City Council that if they rejected the heavily vetted proposal, he would be calling in the city’s debts.
“If they vote this down, then I would ask that we be reimbursed for all work that had been done so far,” Pryor said in an e-mail.
The matter before City Council Tuesday night was a memorandum of agreement, or MOA, between the city, the county, and the S.C. Department of Transportation (PDF, see p. 27). The MOA states that the three entities will work together on creating the new bike-ped lane, but it puts the financial burden solely on the county. Charleston County Council already signed on the dotted line in June 2013, and the SCDOT was waiting on Charleston City Council to get onboard before affixing its signature.
According to Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., the plan for a bike lane over the Ashley River is nearly as old as his administration.
“I was determined to not fail the citizens who have been seeking this and asking for this in one form or another since 1976,” Riley said.
While Riley is one of the only people who can verify that statement, the bike-ped lane is a solution to a problem that has vexed area bike commuters for decades: How to cross the Ashley River safely. With the James Island Connector closed to bike and foot traffic after a fatality, the only route remaining is over the twin Ashley River bridges on US-17 — and that means either chancing it in 40-mph car traffic or pulling off a high-wire act on an exceedingly narrow bridge sidewalk.
“I have the scars to prove that I’ve already been riding that bridge and it needs a serious upgrade,” said Katie Zimmerman, a program director at the Coastal Conservation League. Other bicyclists complained of close calls and falls on the bridge and of being unable to fit two bikes at a time on the sidewalk.
Every bike rack, signpost, and streetlamp outside City Hall had a bicycle chained to it by the time the meeting began. The public comment session drew a diverse crowd of bike lane supporters, including:
• Charleston Moves and Coastal Cyclists, two well-known local bike advocacy groups
• A representative of the Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue, who said members from West Ashley wanted a safe way to walk to their downtown house of worship
• A handful of doctors, including Dr. Thaddeus J. Bell, who supported the bike lane as a health boon
• Whitney Powers and Olive Gardner, the widow and daughter, respectively, of fallen cyclist Edwin Gardner, whose 2010 death is memorialized by a white-painted “ghost bike” at the corner of Lockwood Boulevard and Montagu Street
• MUSC’s Office of Health Promotion, which presented a 2011 internal survey that found over 500 employees saw safe passage over the Ashley as an obstacle for commuting to work on a bike
After hearing the public outpouring of support, City Council picked up a debate it had been having for decades and ultimately passed the measure by a narrow margin.
“I think it’s remarkable that we’ve had 31 people speak in favor of the Legare retrofit, and the only people speaking in opposition are actually sitting here on council,” said Tom Bradford, acting chairman of Charleston Moves.
A major rallying point for Charleston bike advocates was the addition of Wonders’ Way, a pedestrian and bike lane, to the new Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge when it was built in 2005. Critics balked at the $15 million price tag, said it would encourage suicide jumpers, and predicted that no one would use it.
Today, city officials estimate that 230,000 people cross Wonders’ Way every year. And speaking at the City Council meeting Tuesday night, Planning Commission Director Christopher Morgan made a bold forecast based on population density and traffic studies: The Ashley River bike lane would attract 330,000 users per year, dwarfing the popularity of the Cooper River Bridge route.
Hernan Peña, the city’s Traffic and Transportation director, also helped pitch the bike lane to City Council. Citing SCDOT data and county-commissioned feasibility and lane studies, he showed that car traffic on the dual Ashley River bridges actually decreased over time, from 58,400 in 2005 to 56,400 in 2012. He also answered the question of how badly closing a lane of traffic on the northbound bridge would jam up car traffic (the northbound bridge, he noted, has four lanes, while the southbound bridge has only three). The estimated impact on travel times was as follows:
• From SC-61/Wesley Drive to Lockwood Drive: +4 seconds
• From US17/Wesley Drive to Lockwood Drive: +6 seconds
• From Folly Road/Wesley Drive to Lockwood Drive: +13 seconds
Previous county-funded studies had investigated the possibility of adding a cantilevered bike lane onto the side of the Legare Bridge, but they found that the bridge’s aging drawbridge motors would be unable to lift the additional weight.
Critics of the bike lane proposal have pointed out that the SCDOT had declared the Legare Bridge in need of replacement, so a bike lane on the bridge would be a costly temporary fix. But Peña replied that the Legare Bridge was on a list with 1,500 other South Carolina bridges that needed work, with no sign of bridge-replacement funding in sight.
“How long do we wait?” Peña said. “Do we sit here for 15, 20 years until the DOT has the funding and makes the decision that the bridge has to be replaced or significantly rehabilitated?”
“This thing to me is so half-baked.”
That was City Councilman Bill Moody, after hearing Peña and Morgan’s presentation. He voted against the bike lane twice, first on the Traffic and Transportation Committee and second in the general City Council meeting. Moody said the bike lane proposal was “thrust upon our committee” at the previous meeting two weeks prior, when Traffic and Transportation voted to defer the matter. Among his criticisms, Moody said the plan was not a long-term solution and questioned whether bicyclists would be able to safely cross traffic in order to get to the bridge bike lane.
“I know I’m not going to make a lot of people happy tonight, but I feel like I’m trying to do what’s best for my constituents,” Moody said.
Moody wasn’t alone. Councilman Marvin Wagner, another of the five dissenting votes, questioned the studies that had been commissioned, saying, “I don’t think we have 100 percent of the data that we need.” He also questioned whether commuters would really switch from cars to bikes in the summer heat.
“That’s not going to be a pleasant workday for me unless I have a place to take a shower at the other end of that bridge,” Wagner said.
Another nay voter, Councilman Perry Waring, said he wanted to know how safely cars would be able to merge on the bridge with three lanes instead of four. “No one spoke about the safety of people in the cars,” he said.
“What we want is better,” Waring said. “They don’t deserve to have something that six years from now the Highway Department can take away.”
It’s true: The MOA states that the SCDOT can conduct further studies on the safety of the bike lane and remove it at any time.
But in the end, bikers and the Riley administration notched a victory. Riley, who has said his current term in office will be his final one, took the opportunity to do a bit of speechifying about the bike initiative that has come to partially define his latter-day career. “It isn’t my vision. It’s the community’s vision,” he said. He heralded the Ashley River bike lane, like Wonders’ Way, as a civic gem.
“One test of a great city is the number of things citizens can do in the public realm for free. That’s what that is,” Riley said. “They didn’t have to buy a ticket; they didn’t have to join a club … You don’t have to buy anything. You just put on your shoes or get on your bike and go across a beautiful river, safely.”