By its very geography Charleston has always been a divided city, broken up by rivers, harbors, and inlets that shape the Lowcountry. But the city's debate over transportation has proven even more divisive, as Charleston's future as a multi-modal city is hotly contested.
Tuesday evening, Charleston City Council voted unanimously to approve two efforts that could bring about major advancements in bike and pedestrian access to the peninsula. One, the Low Line project, would transform an unused rail line running along the spine of the city into a thriving linear park. The other, a proposed stand-alone bridge over the Ashley River, would offer a safe route for cyclists and pedestrians to enter the peninsula.
In 2015, nonprofit Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line entered into an agreement with Norfolk Southern to develop a plan to purchase the unused rail line. With the clock running down on that agreement, the group has joined forces with the city to purchase the land between Mt. Pleasant Street and Woolfle Street. With an estimated price tag of around $4.84 million, Friends of the Lowcountry Low Line will contribute more than $2.5 million to the overall cost of securing the property.
Although they ultimately voted in favor of the Low Line deal, council members James Lewis and Robert Mitchell voiced concern over how the multimillion dollar park will affect property taxes and housing prices for low-income residents in the area. Mayor John Tecklenburg called the plan for the Low Line "transformative" and assured his fellow council members that housing costs and flooding concerns would be fully considered.
"The improvements for quality of life in this part of the city will be demonstrable. The connectivity that will be achieved, particularly for pedestrians and bikers in our city, will be remarkable. And we will tie in drainage improvements along with the ownership of this property," Tecklenburg said.
With plans in place to secure the Low Line property, City Council also moved forward with a decision to apply for a federal grant to fund the design and construction of a standalone bridge adjacent to the existing Ashley River bridge to serve cyclists and pedestrians. After Charleston County Council voted to pull their support for a lane conversion plan on the Legare Bridge, city and county officials along with Charleston Moves was tasked with discussing other options for safely getting residents across the Ashley River. According to Charleston Moves executive director Katie Zimmerman, the plan for a stand-alone bridge came from city staff.
"The big issue that we're definitely going to have to work on in going about this process is the intersections on both sides. If we can't get those together then it's not going to be efficient for the crossway for the bridge. That's the biggest conundrum," said Keith Benjamin, Charleston's director of transportation. "What we've heard over and over again is that somebody might enjoy themselves while they're on a particular piece of infrastructure, but if it's dangerous for them to get on, dangerous for them to get off, they're not going to use it."
The total cost of the project has been placed at over $18 million, with the county agreeing to contribute up to $3 million to construction costs the city contributing $1.5 million. Contrary to earlier reports, Charleston Moves will not be donating $1.5 million to the project, but did agree to speak with private donors to assist with raising funds for the project.
Although Zimmerman supports the addition of a dedicated path for cyclists and pedestrians, she says that the plan does little to solve Charleston's more immediate transportation problems. Zimmerman was offered a round of applause from City Council at the end of Tuesday's meeting, but she worries that area leaders have freed themselves of taking a definite stand on the proposed bike lane by putting the final decision on funding in the hands of the federal government.
"There's a lot of distrust following the saga that followed the lane conversion project. They should be talking about all the ways this won't work short-term and what happens if the federal grant doesn't come through," says Zimmerman. "I just remember thinking that City Council has been given an out."