The Feb. 4 Board of Supervisors afternoon agenda focused on the “bridges of El Dorado County” — specifically Mt. Murphy and Bucks Bar bridges. Both are elements of the county’s Capital Improvement Program, and both need a lot of improvement.
Matt Smeltzer, deputy director for engineering at the Department of Transportation, laid out the case for using federal funding to rehabilitate or replace both of the structures, and sooner rather than later. Mt. Murphy Road Bridge crosses the South Fork of the American River at Coloma, while Bucks Bar spans the Cosumnes River’s North Fork just west of Somerset. It is the main access road to the South County wineries and other tourist destinations.
Federal Highway Administration funds could provide 100 percent of the money to replace the Mt. Murphy bridge and 88.5 percent for the Bucks Bar project, Smeltzer said. The difference is based on the degree of “sufficiency” of each. The former is rated at “0” out of 100 points, while the latter scores a “72” on the same scale. The federal program is based almost exclusively on safety concerns that must be addressed in order to qualify for and receive the funding, he said.
Supervisors voted unanimously to accept the DOT recommendation to “dismiss” any further study of rehabilitating the Mt. Murphy bridge and to proceed on a contract with CH2MHill, an engineering consultant that has worked with the county several times. The vote, in effect, scraps any notions of trying to keep the bridge as a viable structure to provide the service for which it was intended. Built earlier but replaced in 1915 and renovated in 1931, the bridge’s ratings combine “structural deficiency and structural obsolescence,” which account for the sufficiency score of zero.
Smeltzer described a DOT analysis suggesting that 80-85 percent of the “bridge’s members would have to be replaced” and that the work would further require motorists to use a more-than-20-mile detour. He also calculated a price tag ranging from $6.5 million to $14.2 million, all of which would be borne by the county, because it would be impossible to upgrade the bridge to the federal program standards, he said. In addition to FHWA standards, he said the work would also have to meet approval by the California State Historical Preservation Office. Timelines for rehabilitation and replacement would be about the same, three to three and a half years before the project could be let out to bid. Smeltzer noted that design and environmental work along with acquisition of rights of way would take that long for either project.
The board’s vote initiates Phase 1B of the project, which involves a “full alternatives analysis and environmental documentation to replace Mt. Murphy Road Bridge,” according to board documents. Supervisor Brian Veerkamp added a caveat to his motion to accept the DOT recommendations. If financially and structurally feasible, the county would like to retain the old structure as a pedestrian/cycling bridge. The span connects visitors over the river to the Coloma Resort and to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park but is not a part of either of those entities. Smeltzer noted that rehabbing the bridge for that purpose would cost the county about $1.7 million as federal funding would not cover that kind of work, but that project could retain the bridge within the state’s historical classification as the work would not be nearly as extensive as full rehabilitation.
Former DOT engineer and current president of the county’s Historical Society Kris Payne advised that “you have a problem with the weight limit” and suggested the county repost signage to lower the maximum weight allowed over the bridge. He also noted that building a new bridge on the exact location could pose significant problems in the state park by jeopardizing sensitive buildings which could not withstand the “vibrations” from heavy construction equipment. “We should be looking for a location for a new bridge,” he concluded.
Board Chairwoman Norma Santiago revisited an issue raised by Melody Lane, whose property adjoins the state park and is directly affected by the bridge and the road. Lane expressed grave concern for provision of an evacuation route that would allow residents to get out in case of fire or other emergency. She described an incident when a large recreational vehicle got stuck on the bridge temporarily preventing residents and emergency vehicles (had there been an emergency) from crossing the river. Santiago noted that an evacuation plan would have to be part of any analysis and future planning.
The one-lane bridge serves an average of 280 vehicles per day, according to a 2009 survey posted on the Website Bridgehunters.com. A 2010 actual traffic count described in a December presentation by the Measure Y Committee and Rural Communities United showed 302 trips. The deck is only 10.5 feet wide, at least five to eight feet less than modern standards for one lane, and Smeltzer noted that a pedestrian really has to “suck it in” when meeting a car on the bridge. Its height is 13.6 inches, about 15 to 18 inches less than a comparable bridge built today.
A decision on the Bucks Bar Road Bridge was not nearly as clearcut as that on the Mt. Murphy bridge. At 72 percent sufficiency, the bridge theoretically could stand for many more years, hence the lower percentage paid by the federal bridge program to improve its safety. One big difference between Bucks Bar and Mt. Murphy, however, is that Bucks Bar records an average of 4,200 vehicle trips a day. It is the primary route to and from the communities of Somerset, Mt. Aukum, Fair Play and Grizzly Flat. And as noted earlier, it is the advertised route for traffic from Highway 50 and State Route 49 to the several dozen wineries in the south county area.
DOT’s Smeltzer said the bridge has “lots of problems including hydraulic problems,” and flooding in 1997 “overtopped” the structure. Crossing the river at the bottom of a deep and steep canyon, Bucks Bar joins two sections of roadway noted for steep, twisty turns and slow speeds. And though Smeltzer said it’s officially considered a “major rural collector,” it is basically a typical country road.
The bridge deck is 19 feet wide and a sign at one end of the 70-foot span warns that “eastbound vehicles must yield to westbound vehicles.” It is therefore a one-lane bridge whose “existing road geometry roughly coincides with a 20 mph design speed,” according to DOT background information.
Recommending a full replacement and eventual demolition of the bridge, Smeltzer described a “40 mile-per-hour alignment” that would be 30 feet wide and 175 feet long (the old bridge is 135 feet in length). A new alignment would be slightly upstream from the existing bridge. And therein lies a problem the supervisors were unaware of.
Christopher Smith addressed the board during the public comment period Tuesday and announced that with the 40 mph alignment, “you’d be taking my house. (The bridge would go) through my house.”
He described the structure as his summer home whose construction “predates the 1940 bridge” and that “viability of private property” needs to be maintained. Smith further described himself as a resident in the Somerset-Mt. Aukum area, involved in nearby agribusiness and also a hydrologist. He said his concerns thus covered several areas. He also acknowledged that the bridge, “with 1.5 million cars a year, needs to be replaced.”
Next, Susan Jones and David Wright told supervisors that the recommended alignment would also take a portion of their property on the other side of the river from Smith’s. Jones called the 40-mph alignment like “lipstick on a pig,” while leaving the old bridge in place would eventually create an “attractive nuisance.” Wright told the board that he and Jones did not receive written notice about Tuesday’s meeting and urged supervisors to delay any decision on Bucks Bar until others from the neighborhood could participate in the discussion. He called for a “hard-nosed impartial analysis” and said he supported the 30 mph alternative.
Santiago later scolded Smeltzer for failing to bring the property owners’ information to the board’s attention much earlier.
Supervisor Ron Mikulaco, calculating 10 more years and 15 million vehicle trips on the bridge, said the recommended 40 mph alignment should “not be blocked by a little A-frame summer house. The county is for economic development and this is part of that. Do it right.” Mikulaco referred to the project as “a bridge too far,” (a World War II film about a gallant but failed Allied attempt to capture or destroy several bridges in the Netherlands). He continued with the same theme saying, “If we’re going to build a bridge, let’s do it right. We need to do it right,” while acknowledging that he is “sensitive to property rights.”
While no one urged “doing nothing,” speakers representing south county business interests cautioned against any project that would require closure of the bridge during construction. Randy Rossi of the Fair Play Winery Association said a detour through Pleasant Valley, while only adding a few minutes to the drive, would cause confusion to the public and a “significant impact to our businesses.”
Kris Payne questioned the seeming urgency of the issue and asked, “Is a decision today pertinent?” And “Is it necessary to the county? If so, do it. If not, don’t do it.” Payne also challenged some of the estimated expenses, noting that “construction easement costs” had not been included.
DOT documents show an estimate of $4.6 million (88.53 percent paid through the FWHA bridge program) and the balance made up from (federal) Regional Surface Transportation Program Exchange Funds.
A vote to send DOT staff back to continue studying alternatives passed 3-1. Mikulaco opposed. Supervisor Ray Nutting had voluntarily recused himself from both of the bridge discussions, because they involve federal funding.