Dedicated Bike-Ped Bridge Across Ashley Is an Economic Development Boon

Man walking with bicycle
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo from Pexels

The League of American Bicyclists rates South Carolina 42nd of the 50 states in its 2019 Bicycle Friendly State Report Card. South Carolina scored better than a C- on just six of the 22 metrics. The state ranks fifth-worst in the country for biking safety.

The City of Charleston may be worse. Twenty-six pedestrians and cyclists were killed between 2011-2016 in Charleston, making it the most dangerous city in South Carolina for pedestrians and cyclists.

An $18 Mil Shot in the Arm
Consequently, securing an $18.15 million federal grant for a new bike and pedestrian bridge across the Ashley River is a monumental accomplishment for the Charleston area. The BUILD grant (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) from the U.S. Department of Transportation will cover most of the estimated $22 million costs of the span, which will run parallel to the Route 17 bridges and connect with the West Ashley Greenway.

The grant application was spearheaded by Charleston Moves in collaboration with the City of Charleston Office of Transportation, with support from local elected officials, area businesses and organizations including the Lowcountry Graduate Center.

Keith Benjamin, Director of the Department of Traffic and Transportation for the City of Charleston, thanked LGC executive director Nancy Muller for lobbying the DOT and Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott in favor of the dedicated crossing. “We look forward to continuing to work side by side with you to ensure that no matter where a person is from, who they are, where they work, where they go to school or how they get from point a to point b, that they are safe in the public right of way,” Benjamin wrote.

A Long Road Traveled
Winning the grant is the latest chapter in a long adventure for dedicated biking and walking lanes across the river. Plans for a pedestrian bridge date back more than half a century to 1976. Proposals to carve out a bike lane on the James Island Connector were scuttled by a City Council concerned about its effect on rush-hour automobile traffic. Securing federal funds was key to ever reaching agreement on a bike-ped crossing.

“We still have lots of mobility issues throughout the county, but this is going to change how many cars are packing in and out of the peninsula; it’s going to change the cost of traveling for individuals; it’s going to change access for medical care, for work, for home. This is going to fundamentally change so much for the better,” said Katie Zimmerman, executive director of Charleston Moves.

The Economic Development Case
The biking and walking route across the Ashley is both a quality-of-life and economic development issue for the city. As their Reboot the Commute effort to reduce rush-hour traffic indicates, businesses are suffering productivity issues and pushback on talent recruitment because of the Lowcountry’s widespread automobile gridlock. Roughly half of Lowcountry commuters now spend more than an hour each day commuting to and from work, with some commutes, like the Summerville to Charleston route, consuming at least twice that.

I don’t know an employer in the area that isn’t talking about traffic,” said Deb Campeau, assistant vice president of business development at Trident Health. “We have trouble getting to things on time and we’re not able to schedule meetings particular times of the day. It erodes productivity and morale.”

The City of Charleston estimates 73,636 jobs are accessible within a 20-minute bike ride from the base of the planned bridge on the peninsula side. In addition, it says, 18,125 students attend MUSC, College of Charleston and The Citadel, and could theoretically access school by bicycle from West Ashley.

Transportation experts cite the unchecked population growth and reliance on automobiles as the two main causes of road congestion. Also contributing are roadways and bridges constructed for a significantly smaller population, waterways that reduce travel options and a lack of infrastructure for biking and walking.

“When built, this crossing will help complete a 12-mile stretch of dedicated bicycle and pedestrian pathway that will strengthen the connectivity of our neighborhoods and job centers, support our ongoing West Ashley Revitalization and improve the quality of life for our citizens,” said Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg.

The city, county and Charleston Moves have committed to raising the roughly $4 million necessary to complete construction. Design, permitting and construction are expected to take several years, with the grant targeting 2023 for completion.