Historic Point Reyes bridge to be replaced, Caltrans says

CalTrans
POINT REYES STATION: Caltrans has proposed four alternatives to replace the Green Bridge: a short steel truss bridge, a pre-cast concrete bridge, a long steel truss bridge and a suspension cable bridge. The short truss and concrete bridges would require new piers in the creek, which could pose permitting problems, while the other two options are visual departures from the Green Bridge.  
03/26/2015

The 86-year-old bridge that leading to Point Reyes Station will be demolished and replaced in what will be at least a seven-year process involving public input, lengthy environmental review and years of construction that will necessitate a temporary one-lane bridge across Lagunitas Creek.

Public scoping for a replacement kicked off last Thursday at a poster-filled open house, hosted by the local district of the California Department of Transportation at West Marin School. Comments will be accepted through April 20.

The Green Bridge was built in 1929 as part of a road improvement project, but Caltrans says the steel bridge is deteriorating and vulnerable to an earthquake. Retrofitting, the agency says, would reduce the bridge’s already deficient weight capacity. 

Caltrans has proposed four conceptual alternatives to replace the Green Bridge which could be modified based on comments. The agency also still needs to prepare a geotechnical report and a full-blown traffic study. (Traffic counts from 2013 show that roughly 3,000 cars a day cross the bridge in peak months.)

The ideas for a new bridge include two versions of a steel truss bridge, one of which looks similar to the current bridge, as well as a concrete bridge and a suspension cable bridge. But environmental planners are unsure whether the concrete bridge or the short steel truss bridge could be permitted, given their potential environmental impacts. A draft environmental impact report should arrive next year, which will kick off another round of public
comments. 

After a final report is issued, designs will be drawn up and finalized, and construction should begin in about four years.

Regardless of which bridge design is chosen, the impacts are sure to affect locals. The new bridge will be wider due to bigger lanes, shoulders and sidewalks. Caltrans says that construction—which will cost $5.8 million, funded by a highway program—could easily last two or three years. During that time, Caltrans has proposed a temporary one-lane bridge on the animal clinic side of the Green Bridge, controlled by a traffic signal on each end.

Ramon Cadiz, the board president of the West Marin Chamber of Commerce, simply could not believe that Caltrans would let a one-lane bridge serve the massive influx of weekend tourists for so long. “It promises to be a full-blown traffic disaster, obviously,” he said. “I would think, for sure, they must contemplate some way to expedite it.”

Mary Whitney, who owns the Point Reyes Animal Clinic right by the Green Bridge, worries both about her own business and general downtown access. She doubted traffic jams would deter tourists, who might not even know about it until it was too late, but noted, “The locals who need to go downtown to buy groceries and gas and go to work, they’re all gonna be backed up.”

Retrofit not an option

The first real bridge to cross Lagunitas Creek at the site was built in 1875. Before then, ranchers ran cattle on the east side of Tomales Bay, but there was no Point Reyes Station, said historian Dewey Livingston. Ferries carried people across the water until the train station arrived and a town sprung up, spurring a wooden bridge and, soon after, Levee Road. (There were, in fact, a series of wooden bridges “occasionally swept away by storms,” Mr. Livingston added.)

In 1925 the county secured a $2.5 million bond to modernize Sir Francis Drake Boulevard—widening, realigning and paving the dirt road—because of the rise of automobiles, and to help ranch operations. “It was a way to improve the transportation of farm products into the city,” Mr. Livingston said. The Green Bridge, a 152-foot steel truss bridge built in 1929, was the culmination of that project.

But now, according to Caltrans, the bridge must be replaced because it predates modern expertise in building earthquake-safe crossings. The steel is deteriorating, and Caltrans can’t say how much shaking it can take. “We don’t know the extent of the depth of the piles,” or the piers in the creek that support the bridge, Peter Stoin, the bridge engineer for the project, said at Thursday’s meeting. “So it’s impossible to determine its ability to withstand seismic activity.” 

Scott McMorrow, the manager of the Inverness Public Utility District, estimated that it would take an ambulance an additional 16 minutes to drive through Olema (going the speed limit, at least) to get from Point Reyes Station to Inverness if an earthquake knocked out the Green Bridge. “Depending on the nature of the emergency, that time could be significant,” he said.

Retrofitting the existing bridge isn’t an option Caltrans wants to consider. The agency argues that retrofitting would add so much weight, in steel, that it would curtail its weight capacity, which already does not meet current agency standards. 

Mr. McMorrow, who once worked for Caltrans on bridge retrofits, said retrofitting could not make an old bridge as strong as a new bridge. “I firmly believe,” he added, “as someone who manages the district and lives here, that we always need to have a good bridge at that gap. The time has come to change it.”

A new bridge, Caltrans says, will remain standing even in the case of a 7.9-magnitude earthquake.

Alternatives

The first alternative, a short version of a steel truss bridge, is similar in style to the current bridge. It comes with 101-foot long steel trusses on each side, which curve in a gentle arc as they cross the length of the bridge. Each truss, at its apex, would be about 12 feet tall. 

“They liked number one,” said the project engineer, of the comments he heard from meeting attendees.

Alternative two is a long version of a steel truss bridge: the trusses are 150 feet, and there is a roof bracing across the top, imposing a 15-foot clearance on vehicles. The steel trusses bear some resemblance to the current bridge, but visually, it’s a lot of metal. “It’s a large thing. It’s a completely different impression of what you get when you go into Point Reyes Station,” said Oliver Iberian, a Caltrans environmental planner. 

(Some at the meeting worried about hay trucks, though Joe Giacomini, who delivers hay around Marin, said hay trucks are legally restricted to 14 feet. He added that a bridge with a roof had been built at Skywalker Ranch and he hadn’t experienced a problem with deliveries.)

The third alternative is a pre-cast concrete girder bridge. “This is our bread and butter,” Mr. Iberian said of the slab of pre-cast concrete on two piers. One of its advantages, Caltrans says, is that it could be built “quickly,” though the project engineer said it would still take at least two years. One of its disadvantages is that the bridge deck would be two feet higher than the current bridge, resulting in a larger “footprint” and impacting nearby properties. Besides the animal clinic, a private residence and an office space are situated near the bridge.

Alternative four is a suspension cable bridge, with two concrete, monolith-like towers at each end connecting the cables. One of its listed benefits is that it would be a “unique feature” in the area, though the poster acknowledged that it may not be perceived as compatible with community character.

“You look at that, and you go, ‘Yikes,’” one woman said when she saw the poster.

Regardless of which alternative is chosen, a new bridge will meet modern design standards: two 12-foot lanes, four-foot shoulders on each side, six-foot sidewalks and wheelchair-accessible ramps at the sidewalks. (The Green Bridge has 11-foot lanes, no shoulders, a four-foot sidewalk and no disability access.) 

The plans, as announced by Caltrans, do not address two existing small bridges just north and south of the Green Bridge.

Impacts

The environmental review process will be lengthy and costly, according to staffers at the meeting, but locals are also worried about life during construction. 

Caltrans needs numerous permits from a lengthy list of state and federal agencies, including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Coastal Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Exactly how much permits will cost depends on which bridge Caltrans chooses to build.

Four threatened and four endangered species live in the creek or on the land near the bridge: the California red-legged frog, chinook salmon, the northern spotted owl, steelhead trout, California freshwater shrimp, coho salmon, Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly and Tidewater goby. 

State environmental law compels Caltrans to consider the impacts to those animals. And Lagunitas Creek is considered a critical waterway for the endangered coho in particular, supporting one of the biggest runs in the state. Every year, the fish grow up in the creek, depart as juveniles—passing under the bridge—for Tomales Bay and the ocean, and return as adults to spawn and die.

The big problem facing the first alternative, the one most similar to the current bridge, is that it requires piers in the creek to hold it up. Sticking new piers in the creek, in the same place as the current bridge’s piers, could spur both temporary and permanent adverse environmental impacts to those species, Caltrans says. (The third alternative, the concrete option, also requires piers.) 

Whether Caltrans could acquire the environmental permits to install piers in the creek is uncertain, to say the least. “From our initial informal conversations [with permitting agencies], it appears to us that they’d want us out of the creek entirely,” Mr. Iberian said. “But we wanted to show the public the full range of things that are feasible.”

The two other alternatives do not require piers in the creek. But both—the long steel truss bridge and the suspension cable bridge—are visual departures from the Green Bridge. Mr. Iberian said the agency would consider visual impacts as part of the environmental review.

Community impacts

The impacts go beyond the effect on fish and birds. At least one business will likely bear a heavy burden and locals anticipate serious traffic delays during the long construction.

The timeline is in large part due to environmental constraints; Caltrans will probably only work between June and October, to avoid bird nesting season and salmon breeding and passage. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will determine the precise timeframe.)

Caltrans plans to erect a temporary, one-lane bridge across Lagunitas Creek as it replaces the Green Bridge, on the side close to the animal clinic. A signal will control traffic on each end. Caltrans says it will cause delays of about five minutes.

Mr. Cadiz, who believes the one-lane bridge will create longer delays, said it was unclear what the economic impact would be. But he believes most businesses will weather it. “I’m sure our local businesses will find creative ways to prevail,” he said.

Ms. Whitney, who primarily serves locals, is worried about the affect on her operation, both because of traffic and the temporary bridge, which will invariably run through her property. She has run the animal hospital for over a decade, but bought the property itself in 2013; she said she had no idea about the plans to demolish the bridge and replace it until a client told her about the planned meeting. (She couldn’t attend, but heard about the discussions from another client.) 

A year go, she said, she received a letter from Caltrans asking for permission to traverse her property for an environmental survey, but at that point the agency said it was considering a retrofit.

Public information officer Steve Williams said affected property owners will be notified. “Those negotiations really take a long time, and we’re very far from that point right now,” he said, adding that compensation will be involved.

Ms. Whitney lives in Inverness and drives across the bridge every day. “This news is very upsetting, because I think it could have a tremendous impact on getting to work and back, and people wanting to come or not because of the traffic nightmare of getting over the creek with a one-lane bridge,” she said. “The clinic supports my family.”

She respects the dilemma of the tight space and the need to make the bridge safe, but she wishes the agency could just retrofit the existing bridge.

Ms. Whitney surmised that the temporary bridge would either take out a chunk of her front yard and sign, or her parking lot. The noise from construction itself is not ideal for the pets, particularly jittery cats. 

And, she added, “I deal with lots of human emotion. People are upset that their pet is sick or dying. I try to keep it as quiet and peaceful as I can. I don’t like loud noises or chainsaws outside when I’m in there working, because it’s a place to heal.”

Though Ms. Whitney plans to become involved in the public process, she is also somewhat resigned to what is coming. “I can imagine I’ll have to adapt to whatever they do,” she said.

 

Email comments on the Lagunitas Creek Bridge Project, no later than April 20, to lagunitas_bridge@dot.ca.gov or send them to Oliver Iberian, District Branch Chief, California Department of Transportation, District 4 Office of Environmental Analysis, P.O. Box 23660, Oakland, CA 94623. A draft E.I.R. is expected in mid-2016.