[image-1]Charleston County Council approved a decision Thursday evening to send a letter to the state Department of Transportation stating that county officials do not support plans to convert a lane of traffic on the T. Allen Legare Bridge for bike and pedestrian use.
Charleston County and city officials had previously entered into a mutual agreement to move forward with the project, which appears to be in limbo following County Council’s decision.
Thursday’s vote from County Council comes days after the results of a new study estimating the impact that the lane conversion would have on vehicular traffic. The newest estimates from the county’s study predict the loss of the lane would add an extra minute of travel time during the peak morning commute hours for those travelling down Folly Road. This delay would increase to more than two minutes by 2028, according to the study. The $2 million conversion project would also add a 22-second delay for those commuting onto the peninsula from Savannah Highway and 12 seconds for Highway 61 commuters.
Councilman Henry Darby voiced his support for the bike and pedestrian lane over the Ashley River, saying the project should be left in the hands of the city. Councilman Elliot Summey proposed that the James Island Connector be opened up to a dedicated path for bicycle traffic.
“I’d be willing to not only not allocate the money to close the lane, but take that money and some toward the James Island Connector to make sure that we accomplish the goal of getting people across, but at the same time we don’t adversely impact traffic and we provide a safer route,” said Summey.
Council chambers were filled with supporters for the bike-lane conversion, including local cycling advocates and city officials who questioned the scope of the recent study.
“Part of the reason why I stand here today on behalf of the mayor and the council and other with regards to this lane, in favor of it, is because it’s a call out to safety,” said Keith Benjamin, director of traffic and transportation with the city of Charleston. “Unfortunately, the basis of success within the reporting that was given was level of service and not safety. Unfortunately, in the report in the measurement of level of success, it did not measure modal shift.”
Katie Zimmerman, executive director of Charleston Moves, addressed council regarding what has been one of the nonprofit organization’s key points of concern. Like several members of County Council, Zimmerman supports county officials placing complete control of the project in the hands of the city.
“The latest study says you’d have to have about 500 people leaving their cars at home, transiting the bridge either by bus, by bike, or by foot in order to allow the level of service to be the same in 2016 and 2028. The study doesn’t have anything about projected CARTA numbers in it,” said Zimmerman. “All we can go on are the numbers that we know of, and what we all know of by doing two FOIA requests to you all and two FOIA requests to the city, that 922 individuals or entities, including MUSC, including BoomTown, including a lot of other employers wrote to their council members, saying they were in favor of this lane.”
County Councilman Brantley Moody challenged activist groups in favor of the bike lane, raising allegations of data manipulation on their part. Councilmen Darby and Dickie Schweers provided the lone votes against allowing county staff to write the Department of Transportation regarding the county’s lack of support for the bike lane conversion.
Following that vote, Summey introduced a motion to task county staff to work with the city, the Department of Transportation, and Charleston Moves to find a workable plan to allow safe bike and pedestrian access across the James Island Connector. Summey’s plan was quickly passed by council, but Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg voiced his concerns that a bike lane on the Legare Bridge was a necessary part of a connected city.
“I do thank you for the offer of the second motion to allow us to proceed with returning bike usage to the James Island Connector. The truth is we need both. We need the James Island Connector for bicycles and pedestrians, and we need the Legare Bridge,” said Tecklenburg. “And I will share, Council member Darby, the study that the city did estimated $3.1 million to safely use the James Island Connector, but that did not include the little [S.C. Highway] 61 connection off of the James Island Connector, so it wouldn’t shock me if the number turns out to be more like $4 million. But even doing that could make it safer for bicyclists, I would argue that the very safest passage from West Ashley to the city for pedestrians particularly is on the Legare Bridge. So for twice the money, you get about half the safety with the James Island Connector.”