Heated end to Green Bridge comment period

06/22/2017

With just two days left before the public comment period closes on the draft environmental impact report for the Green Bridge project, community members remain largely discontented.

Last Thursday, Caltrans experts and project managers appeared at a special meeting hosted by the Point Reyes Station Village Association at the Dance Palace in order to answer questions directly. The meeting was scheduled due to the large amount of public input the agency has received.

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni introduced the meeting, which was extremely well attended and over three hours long. About 50 different comments were voiced, though many speakers spoke more than once.

The meeting kicked off with a panel featuring three residents whose public discontent with the proposed project has been particularly influential during the comment period. Dr. Mary Whitney spoke about the considerable impact the project would have on her business, the Point Reyes Animal Hospital, as construction would be staged in her parking lot.

She advocated for the no-build alternative, which would entail no project at all and which is currently listed as a possibility in the draft E.I.R. Dr. Whitney said her projected loss of income would lead to the closure of the hospital and her family’s “financial ruin,” and ultimately force them out of the community.

“The loud noise and traffic delays will certainly discourage clients from coming in and cause more stress to the animals. Over-the-counter sales of prescription drugs, flea and tick products and food will be replaced by online shopping; hospitalized pets and boarding will be diminished by not being able to use my fenced backyard due to the loud construction noise; less business would lead to laying off employees, which are so hard to find in the first place, and employees that commute may find work closer to home,” she said.

Her speech drew thunderous applause.

Dr. Whitney’s neighbor from across the creek, David Moser, an attorney who specializes in land-use projects, was another speaker on the panel. He primarily questioned why Caltrans has not kept the possibility of a retrofit—which, he said, could potentially be less impactful to the environment and community—in the running by evaluating it in the draft E.I.R.

He also suggested that one of the preferred options among community members, the three-span bridge design, requires drilling new piers in the creek, an endeavor that environmental permitting agencies are not likely to approve.  

The last speaker of the three, Inverness resident Bob Johnston, a former professor who taught land use and transportation planning at the University of California, Davis for 30 years, questioned the need for the project in the first place. 

“With all respect to Caltrans, it has stated the purpose and need for the project based on what it does as an agency—namely, build bridges,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a bridge you should be looking at in this analysis; it’s saving lives.”

Mr. Johnston argued that large, red, blinking warning lights could be installed on both sides of the bridge and hooked into the California earthquake ShakeAlert system. That system was successfully used by BART in August 2015, when trains were stopped after an earthquake warning.

Caltrans then gave a presentation, though employees seemed somewhat flustered and Jodi Ketelson, the project’s environmental manager, admitted that her team had finished adding the last slide to the presentation just a few moments before she spoke.

Ms. Ketelson began by reviewing the details of the project as described in the draft E.I.R. and also as they were presented at the official community meeting for public input. That meeting was held in Marshall last month, and attended by far fewer residents. (Ms. Ketelson apologized that it was not held at the Dance Palace; Caltrans was unable to book it there, she said.)

There are currently three design alternatives for a bridge replacement evaluated in the draft E.I.R.—a three-span, short steel-truss bridge, a three-span concrete bridge and a full-span steel-truss bridge. Though Caltrans initially offered only a three-year construction timeline, there is now a one-year possibility for each (though this faster option comes with a hitch of a total closure for two to three weeks).

All of these alternatives would be larger than the existing structure, increase weight-bearing capacity and have wider travel lanes and a wider sidewalk for safety purposes. And all would also entail temporarily converting the surrounding area into a construction zone and environmental impacts to sensitive habitat and native species like the Western pond turtle, coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Ms. Ketelson’s presentation included a few new pieces of analysis that were tailored to community concerns. (She noted that Caltrans has received over 150 written public comments so far.) Foremost, she walked the audience through the reasons why a retrofit option was discounted in the draft E.I.R., and therefore was not currently under consideration.

A retrofit would require the conventional, three-year time period, whereas the other three design options could be done on the accelerated timeline, she said. Like the three-year timeline proposal, a retrofit would require the construction of a detour bridge and the associated higher costs to private properties and environmentally sensitive areas.

Other factors she cited as making a retrofit less desirable included that it would require three times more in-water structure than the accelerated plan, not only for the detour bridge but also for a temporary support underneath. There would be greater noise impacts associated with the replacement of rivets, and the total project is projected to cost nearly 50 percent more than any of the accelerated alternatives.

Additionally, she emphasized that the goal of a retrofit is simply “no collapse,” or to prevent the structure from collapsing during an earthquake and save human lives. A new bridge has higher performance standards. While a retrofitted bridge might only last from 30 to 40 years, a new bridge should have an 80- to 100-year lifespan and would comply with updated safety protocol for travel lanes and shoulders.

A retrofit, Ms. Ketelson also said, would have the highest biological impacts.

Contrastingly, she presented a refined outline of the construction areas for a replacement, showing a way to reduce the staging area for the full-span, steel-truss bridge, the three-span, short steel-truss and the three-span concrete bridge. 

She also clarified that the timeline for the accelerated schedule was not a full year. There would be biological monitoring and engineering work in February, site preparation from June through August, the two to three-week closure in September and then about a month of work in October to finish everything and do site restoration. (Though the draft E.I.R. stated the weeks-long total closure would occur during the busy summer season, Ms. Ketelson on Thursday said it would happen in September.)

Following her presentation, the primary engineer for the project gave an extensive—and, community members in the audience later complained, technical—analysis of the flaws of a retrofit.

He explained that there was “lateral spreading” at the base, meaning the support structures at both banks of the creek are slowing folding under the bridge. He showed problems with the abutments, concrete piers, piles, trusses and deck, and described reinforcement and replacement strategies.

Ultimately, however, he cited his grandmother’s health to explain what he seemed to think was an obvious choice not to retrofit. “She wouldn’t get a knee replacement until her knee actually popped. And then, she had to spend three whole months in bed, whereas if she had taken preventative measures… it would have been better,” he said.

Ms. Ketelson added: “We’re your public servants. The priorities in California are huge, and this has reached the top for funding.” 

Documents and slides from the presentation are available online at dot.ca.gov/d4/lagunitascreekbridge/.

The meeting concluded with a question and answer session with Caltrans. All of the comments from this portion were recorded by a court reporter, and would be addressed, like all public comments, in the final environmental impact report. 

During the question and answer period, most residents were incensed. Some wanted to know if a no-build option was still possible; Caltrans said it was, and public sessions like these were the way that community members could achieve that outcome.

Many expressed support for the animal hospital, including long-term clients. David Whitney, her husband, spoke several times and questioned if Caltrans could really offer her relocation. He said that a representative Dr. Whitney had spoken to that day over the phone had seemed to think it was not an option. (According to Dr. Whitney, Caltrans representatives asked to meet her at her business to walk around the site after she spoke at the Marshall meeting, but she instead to chose to have a conversation over the phone.) 

One Caltrans representative during the meeting confirmed that it was possible to relocate the business, though formally they could not legally start talking about it until a design alternative had been chosen and the final environmental impact report released. At that point, a right-of-way specialist would contact her and all other affected property owners to discuss compensation for temporarily using their land, as well as any mitigation measures. 

After the meeting, Dr. Whitney said that as far as she understands, Caltrans will not address the potential loss of business; to be compensated for that, she would have to file a lawsuit. 

Still others questioned the issues of the retrofit. Mr. Moser and another Inverness resident wondered why Caltrans had given this presentation to explain the retrofit, as opposed to evaluating it formally in an environmental impact report. They also asked how long the engineer who presented had been working on the project, since a seismic analysis of a retrofit was only published this March, and therefore did not inform the decision to exclude it in the draft E.I.R., published a month later.

Toward the second half of the meeting, the tone shifted slightly, and some started voicing concern over the strong call for the no-build option, given safety concerns.

“For the people advocating for a no-build option, my question to you is, in the event of an earthquake, whenever it happens…,” began Cathleen Dorinson, who represented the Mainstreet Moms in a stakeholder working group Caltrans convened last year.

“If!” someone from the audience shouted, interrupting her.

“Not “if,’” she replied. “It’s going to happen. It could be 300 years, but we live in an earthquake zone, so not ‘if.’ When the earthquake happens, then what? The bridge is not drivable upon, it’s either fallen down or obviously unsafe. What is the process that this community has to go through for us to have a replacement bridge built? Because it’s not going to have to be retrofitted at that point; it will have to be replaced. Do we start this whole five-year process over again?”

A few others spoke of the reality of earthquakes in California, about access to emergency resources in Point Reyes Station for people on the other side of the bridge and about making the right decision for the next generation.

The safety benefits of a replacement, including the larger sidewalk and shoulders, and improved sightline for turning at Sir Francis Drake, held less weight with the audience, however.

“I walk on the bridge and I ride my bike probably more than most people, and I’ve never had any trouble crossing that bridge, crossing that street, and I don’t think there is much concern for bicyclists or pedestrians in this area,” said Point Reyes Station business owner Susan Hayes, whose home is within 1,000 feet of the construction zone. “And, it’s a proven fact that the wider the road, the faster the cars go. The largest problem at that intersection is speed.”

Ms. Hayes also implored why there wasn’t a weight limit sign posted at the bridge, if that was truly a danger today.