Locals register concerns about bridge project

05/17/2017

Residents and business owners who will be affected by the replacement of Point Reyes Station’s Green Bridge spoke out at a public meeting last Wednesday night, when Caltrans presented a draft environmental impact report for the project.

The over 400-page document, released in late April, details the specifics of the replacement and is subject to a public comment period until June 9. With construction slated to begin in 2019, there will be additional opportunities for input, including after Caltrans selects a final bridge design by the end of the year. 

A new accelerated schedule for the construction was warmly received by some attendees at the meeting, held at the Marconi Conference Center. “This was the answer to our prayers,” Cathleen Dorinson, who represented Mainstreet Moms in a stakeholder working group Caltrans convened last year, said after the meeting.   

Yet the compressed timeline, which would shorten construction from an estimated three years to one year and possibly lessen overall impacts, doesn’t come without a hitch: a total closure of the crossing for weeks during the summer season. 

There are currently three primary design alternatives on the table for the bridge’s replacement—a three-span, short steel-truss bridge, a three-span concrete bridge and a full-span steel-truss bridge. All of them would be larger than the existing structure in order to meet current standards for earthquake resistance. They all increase weight-bearing capacity to accommodate the size of modern trucks and have larger shoulders and sidewalks for safety purposes.

All design options 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.

The report includes a range of avoidance, minimization and mitigation efforts, such as containing in-water work from the stream, putting up fencing around the most sensitive areas, erecting temporary barriers to reduce noise and dust pollution, reseeding native plants, replacing trees and wetlands restoration. 

Caltrans will not receive notification that the project indeed complies with the California Environmental Quality Act until it submits its final environmental impact report, which will include the preferred bridge alternative as well as the responses to the public comments made on the draft version.

Caltrans first introduced the project back in 2015, after engineers determined that the 1929 structure does not meet current standards for earthquake resistance. Soon after, the community appeared to be largely opposed to a replacement, with many advocating for a retrofit instead. Though the agency evaluated this option, it has since abandoned it, saying that a retrofit would entail replacing the bridge piece by piece, with no guarantee that the final structure’s integrity would be on par with today’s standards.

The stakeholder working group, which included representatives from the county fire department, the business and farming communities, Caltrans, the Point Reyes Station Village Association, and the county parks and public works departments, met three times in 2016. 

“We said, ‘Three years—no way,’” Ms. Dorinson said. “[Caltrans] had to learn who we are in the stakeholder group. They aren’t used to building rural bridges, especially over streams that are in ecologically sensitive areas. But we got their attention when we told them that the bridge is used by so many tourists, bicyclists, horses, hay and milk and two-story cattle trucks.”

Though the conventional construction timeline for the short steel-truss bridge is still evaluated in the draft environmental impact report, Caltrans makes clear that it primarily serves as a point of comparison. That schedule would eliminate the need for a full closure, with Caltrans building a temporary two-lane bridge next to the Green Bridge, but would effectively double the impact to the community and natural environment because of its longer timeframe. 

Without a temporary bridge, Caltrans would shut down the southern entrance to town for two to three weeks. The closure would necessitate a nine-mile detour through Olema, and would inconveniently coincide with the busy summer tourist season—both to lessen impacts to aquatic life and allow workers better access resulting from less stream flow.  

Though the report says Caltrans would provide necessary emergency personnel and create a traffic management plan if a temporary closure is required, people at Wednesday’s meeting expressed strong concerns about it.  

“I’m very concerned with the effect on public safety and health services during a time period where there is no access to and from Point Reyes,” an Inverness resident said. “Living on the Pacific slope side of this community, we depend on public services—the Sheriff’s Office, the fire services—for mutual aid, and so we are going to need extra provisioning of equipment and personnel to ensure rapid access.” 

If Caltrans chooses the full-span, steel-truss bridge on an accelerated schedule, there are not one, but two ways construction can proceed: a longitudinal move-in, in which the new bridge would be built near the site and transported a short distance, and a transverse slide-in, in which the new bridge would be built next to the old bridge and slid sideways into place. 

The transverse slide-in would be the most time-efficient approach, but is only possible for the full-span steel-truss design. Yet the report says that design—which would include crossbars anywhere from 20 to 30 feet high stretching over the bridge—would have an adverse visual impact that would not comport with either the local community plan or the Local Coastal Program. 

Several people on Wednesday expressed a preference for the concrete bridge with the longitudinal move-in, not only because it would cost just $8 million in taxpayer dollars—compared to $12.6 million for the costliest option, the three-span, short steel-truss bridge built with the conventional schedule.

“I’ve been told [the concrete bridge] is the strongest, and has the best visibility for traffic and landscape, with no visual obstructions,” Chuck Eckart, who represented the Point Reyes Village Association on the stakeholder group, said on Wednesday. “It’s the cheapest, the most maintenance-free, the narrowest of all alternatives, and has a construction time of one year.” 

Mr. Eckart also voiced his preference to not have trusses on the concrete bridge, an ornamental addition Caltrans suggested as a possibility. His comments were seconded by Ms. Dorinson and Britt Stitt, an Inverness resident and retired construction contractor, during a conversation with the Light after the meeting. 

Beyond the bridge design, issues of access—and the anticipated disruption caused by a full year of construction—remained contentious.

“I learned that the staging for the construction would be at my doorstep by reading through the 400-page document, in which there are three sentences about my business,” Mary Whitney, owner of the Point Reyes Animal hospital for over 20 years, said at the meeting. “The construction has the potential to put me completely out of business. So why hasn’t Caltrans contacted me?” 

In addition to using part of the veterinarian office’s parking lot as staging space, the agency would use vacant areas at the corner of Levee Road and Highway 1 just north of Marin Sun Farms, and at the corner of Highway 1 and B Street. The report says the animal hospital’s parking lot would be reconfigured to allow the business to continue operating and that Caltrans would work to curtail impacts to animals there, and may even help temporarily relocate them. 

Caltrans chief of environmental analysis Stephen Galvez-Abadia, addressing Ms. Whitney’s concerns toward the end of the meeting, acknowledged the “concern that she had not been approached.” “In terms of right of way, technically we cannot approach the property owners before we complete the environmental process. Then we can do that,” he said. 

One Inverness resident suggested moving the staging area further from the animal hospital, but the idea was shot down by Jodi Ketelsen, the project’s environmental manager who was leading Wednesday’s meeting, because of the need for the staging area to be close to the actual construction zone. 

There are modest differences in the extent of construction and size of the staging area required by each option, though the differences only amount to roughly a third of an acre.

Ms. Ketelsen said Caltrans was recording all the comments made at Wednesday’s meeting and that the final environmental report would reflect them. 

Ms. Whitney and two other members of the public requested that the comment period be extended to allow more time to peruse the lengthy report and present concerns to Caltrans. 

Amanda Eichstaedt, who represented the business community in the stakeholder working group, acknowledged Caltrans’ efforts to listen to the community. “I’ve served on many county and agency working groups, and I would like to commend Caltrans for doing a good job. A lot of the comments that came out of the public scoping process did make their way into the documents that we are talking about today. This wasn’t blowing hot air; it was the real deal,” she said.

Several others present rehashed the issue of a retrofit, claiming that Caltrans had not sufficiently explored the option. One Point Reyes resident questioned whether there was a need for the bridge to change at all. “You’re proposing a bridge for 50,000 people. I mean, what are we talking about here, military vehicles?” he said.   

Ms. Dorinson, however, was in favor of the undertaking. “I’ll tell you what: I won’t cross that bridge at the same time as a two-story cattle truck any more, since I joined the committee. No one really knows [what it can hold],” she said. “I’m all for preventative measures. From my perspective, if there’s a big earthquake and there’s massive destruction, we are so far down the list. Caltrans will have to focus on areas where there are millions of people, not a thousand.”