Caltrans dupes bridge working group, denies community retrofit option

05/25/2017

I come to Caltrans’ Green Bridge project with an insider’s perspective. I have practiced environmental and natural resources law since 1985. My clients include any type of public or private entity proposing a land-use project with significant environmental issues, including ranchers, developers, timber and mining companies, renewable energy companies, cities and counties, universities, local water districts and nonprofits. I’m usually advocating for such projects, helping clients navigate lengthy permitting and public processes. On the other side are often project critics. Despite opportunities for “public participation,” the deck is stacked against them. To be effective, they have to pay close attention, do serious homework, ask tough questions, demand honest answers and be very persistent.  

On its Green Bridge project, Caltrans isn’t giving honest answers. The agency first recommended a seismic retrofit of the bridge in 2007. Over time, the seismic retrofit morphed into the March 2015 proposal to completely demolish and replace the bridge. Given the associated community and environmental impacts, many asked Caltrans for bridge-specific engineering analyses to identify actual (not assumed) seismic risks, and retrofit alternatives to reduce any such risks. Caltrans promised to do so in an October 2015 public meeting at the Dance Palace. Instead, in early 2016 Caltrans created and held three two-hour meetings with a hand-picked “stakeholder working group” of four area residents and 12 government agency employees, ostensibly to get “community” input, even as Caltrans barred the public and press, including the Light, from attending.  

In their only meeting about a retrofit, in January 2016, Caltrans misleadingly told the working group that a “retrofit” here would mean replacing every single piece of the bridge piece by piece—which is no retrofit at all. Since rebuilding the entire bridge in this manner would take three years and cause horrible impacts, the working group quickly said it didn’t support a retrofit, giving Caltrans the exact soundbite it orchestrated. 

Last month, Caltrans released for public comment a draft environmental impact report analyzing bridge fix alternatives. Lo and behold, the draft doesn’t consider even a single retrofit option of any kind. Why? In Caltrans’ own words, the working group “determined that they were not supportive of the Retrofit Alternative.” In short, Caltrans gave the group a single, unworkable and false description of “retrofit,” got the group to immediately reject it, and then used that decision to avoid any further consideration of any true seismic retrofit options. In short, Caltrans used and duped the working group on this issue.

Every business and resident should be alarmed about this project. Why? Caltrans says the bridge replacement project will snarl traffic for at least one year (followed by a complete three-week summer shutdown), with one-way alternating traffic controlled by a signal, a 15-mph speed limit, a three-way stop at Levee Road and 30-minute traffic delays on weekends. Caltrans says noise levels during that year will go from the current “serenity and quiet” to worse than a “noisy urban area.” It will be a year of massive, noisy, heavy construction equipment and 30 to 55 construction workers a day. Caltrans even suggests seashore visitors use Bear Valley Road to avoid going near Point Reyes Station.

Hey, Marin Sun Farms, Toby’s, the new owners of Point Reyes Books, The Station House, Cowgirl Creamery, the hardware store—do you think a noisy, snarled traffic construction zone for over a year might affect your business, your livelihood? And to local residents: how’s this going to affect you getting to the post office, gas station, grocery store, social events?

Are there less disruptive seismic retrofit possibilities? Yes, but Caltrans refuses to acknowledge or analyze them. Caltrans does seismic bridge retrofits all the time (more than half of Caltrans’ 12,000-plus bridges are over 40 to 50 years old), and has clear standards for them. 

Indeed, in a separate document, Caltrans itself just identified a specific seismic retrofit option for the Green Bridge, but the agency excluded it from the draft environmental impact report, thus precluding it from being considered. Are such retrofit options feasible and desirable? Nobody knows, because Caltrans won’t analyze them. Caltrans decided long ago on a full demolition and replacement, and it is determined not to deviate from that, regardless of community impacts.  

Don’t you be duped, too. Your only effective opportunity to influence this project is right now, as the public comment period ends on June 9. Caltrans has so far declined to extend the deadline.

The necessary information is at dot.ca.gov/d4/lagunitascreekbridge/. If you want help synthesizing things, email me at ptreyesdave@gmail.com.

 

David Moser lives in Point Reyes Station and San Francisco. He has practiced environmental and natural resources law since 1985, and was formerly chair of the advisory board of the University of California, Berkeley College of Natural Resources.