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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
For at least 100 years in the rural community that is now Woodside, three two-lane, single-span bridges -- on Kings Mountain Road, Portola Road and Mountain Home Road -- have spanned three meandering waterways: Union Creek, Alimbique Creek and Bear Gulch Creek. The bridge on Mountain Home is 112 this year and eligible to be listed as a state historic resource.
While these bridges have fulfilled their function of providing safe passage, it has been 100 years. In recent decades, it could be argued that they're not equipped for modern two-way traffic; and today's vehicles are heavier, larger and more powerful than they were 100 years ago, and there are many more of them.
The California Department of Transportation has been paying attention. In 2009, Caltrans listed all three bridges as "structurally deficient" and "functionally obsolete," according to a report presented to the Woodside Town Council on Nov. 13 by Steven L. Mellon, a professional engineer with Sacramento-based Quincy Engineering. Untouched, the bridges may have another 20 years before Caltrans would forbid heavy traffic such as cement trucks, possibly even fire trucks and garbage trucks, Mr. Mellon told the council.
Their middling status makes them eligible for rehabilitation or replacement, with the federal government paying 90 percent of the roughly $6.5 million price tag. But federal money brings with it federal standards, and there's the rub: those standards would double the widths of the bridges, undercutting their charm and their rural nature in a town that places high value on both.
In his report, Mr. Mellon noted several deficiencies of Woodside's bridges:
■ At a working width of 20 feet to 22 feet, all three lack the standard 11-foot vehicle-traffic lanes and four-foot paved shoulders for bike traffic. Accommodations for equestrian traffic would widen the bridges by an additional six feet.
■ On the approaches, all three bridges lack standard crash protection to prevent vehicles from colliding with the blunt ends of the railings.
■ The concrete is cracked, chipped and spalled -- missing the top layer -- on two of the bridges, and there is damage from stream erosion.
Since all three are on roads designated as scenic, any significant change requires consideration of aesthetic and cultural factors. Stakeholders could include, in addition to residents, the Planning Commission, the Architectural and Site Review Board, the Trails and Circulation committees and the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.
In response to council inquiries about the town running its own bridge maintenance program, Mr. Mellon said there are ways to extend a bridge's life by maybe 20 years at a little less than half the cost of the federal project. This estimate was a conservative guess, Mr. Mellon said repeatedly. The council asked him to prepare a thorough analysis.
The town could redirect its $500,000-a-year road maintenance allotment, Town Manager Kevin Bryant said. Councilman Dave Burow raised and then discarded the idea of a bond measure; the total would probably be too small. Town Engineer Paul Nagengast suggested possible county resources, including funds for pedestrians and bicyclists and the half-cent sales tax (Measure A) revenues for transportation projects.
Council members generally reserved judgment on the largess of federal money and the pains involved in accepting it. The tradeoff: the town could limit its costs to $750,000 and get long use from new bridges, or spend $2 million to $3 million and get something that lasts half as long, Mr. Burow observed cheerlessly. "I'm fine with taking it to the next level and getting some public input on it, or I'm fine with doing nothing."
Councilman Tom Shanahan blazed his own path. "Taking federal government money borrowed from the Chinese to rebuild bridges in the richest part of the county is embarrassing. I have a problem with that," he said. "There must be bridges in England and France that are a lot older than this. I just don't understand what we're doing."
After maybe 10 seconds of silence, Mr. Burow added: "I share Tom's sentiments."
"Going from a 20-foot wide bridge to a 41-foot wide bridge is a big deal," Councilman Peter Mason said. "It doesn't sound nice."
"I don't think replacing a bridge is nice," Town Engineer Paul Nagengast replied. The town must plan its decisions so it's not scrambling if there's a bridge failure, he added, noting that there are ways to retain a bridge's look. Mr. Mellon's report includes alternatives toward that end.
The roads leading to the bridges will end up wider, resident Ken George speculated. "You're changing the whole complexion of the roadway," he said. "We've lived with it for all of this time. ... We've gotten by. There haven't been a ton of accidents as far as I know. ... It would change the whole rural feel of Woodside."
"All these things are so deluxe," said resident Richard Tagg. "Why can't we get along with what we have now?" If a bridge can't accommodate a heavy cement truck, then the homeowner should have it delivered in two trucks, he said. "Post (the bridge) and whoever overdoes it, maybe they can repair it."
The worst outcome, Councilman Ron Romines said, would be to spend more on studies and then walk away from the federal funding.
Mr. Shanahan recited a stanza from the "Concord Hymn," by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "By the rude bridge that arched the flood, / Their flag to April's breeze unfurled, / Here once the embattled farmers stood, / And fired the shot heard round the world."
Town staff "made us aware of free money, other peoples' money," he added. "There's nothing like a wide bridge to generate a wide highway. I object philosophically to this town taking other peoples' money." The town should develop its own program, he said.
That approach has two important unknowns: program cost and funding sources, Councilwoman Anne Kasten said. And, she added, the residents are not in the room. "It's important for us to make a decision with them."