Local advocates might have found a way to reverse the bicycle ban on the James Island Connector: Take it to the Statehouse.
The state Senate Transportation Committee will meet on Wednesday to discuss a piece of legislation that would allow local governing bodies to request an exemption to the state law barring bicyclists and pedestrians from freeways.
For years, Charleston police had turned a blind eye to bicyclists who used the bridge to get from James Island to the peninsula, but on Jan. 23, DOT workers installed road signs announcing that bicyclists and pedestrians — along with farm machinery, animals, and motorcycles under 5 horsepower — were prohibited from traveling on the bridge. Charleston police said they would issue warnings rather than write tickets for the time being.
With the Connector bike ban in effect, bicyclists who want to travel from James Island to downtown Charleston currently have to cross over to West Ashley via the narrow Wappoo Cut Bridge on Folly Road, a route that Bradford finds more harrowing and dangerous than the Connector ever was.
The new legislation, introduced March 27 by Charleston Republican Sen. Chip Campsen, would let cities apply for a partial exception from the Department of Transportation for a specific freeway. In order for an exception to be granted, a city would have to prove that bicyclists have "no other reasonably safe or viable alternative route" than to use the freeway. Tom Bradford, executive director of the advocacy group Charleston Moves, thinks that case could certainly be made.
A week and a half ago, Bradford and his wife tried riding their bicycles from the peninsula to James Island, starting by riding across the northern span of the Ashley River Bridge and then heading south on Folly Road. When they got to Wappoo Cut, they dismounted and walked their bicycles along the raised bridge's raised walkway. Near the apex, an 18-wheel tanker truck barreled past at about 50 mph, within inches of Bradford and his wife. "It just about sucked us into its wake," he says. They decided to take the Connector on the way back home, in spite of the ban, to avoid another harried experience on the Wappoo Cut Bridge.
Shortly after the Connector bike ban took effect in January, Charleston Moves called a series of emergency meetings to discuss how to respond to the ban. One option on the table was a mass protest, but the members ultimately decided on a more diplomatic approach.
"Think about it: It might be good to show a bunch of cyclists doing something, but ultimately how does it achieve a rollback of the ban?" Bradford says. "It's better to put the muscle into something very specifically that will address the ban, and this is clearly it."
Members of the Coastal Conservation League helped draft the language for a bill, and Charleston Moves reviewed it. Then CCL's lobbyists in Columbia started contacting legislators to see who would sign on, and Sen. Campsen, who is the chairman of the Transportation Committee, took the bait. According to Charleston Moves, 22 other states have similar exceptions in their laws.
Campsen is currently the only sponsor on the bill, but Bradford says things could change after the committee meeting Wednesday. He plans to attend the meeting, and he might assemble a small contingent of supporters to travel along with him to Columbia.
If the law passes and an exception is granted, bicyclists and pedestrians who use the bridge would be required to travel on the shoulder whenever possible.