Editorial: Bridges need replacement but who pays?The topic was not unusual for a city council meeting anywhere in the country: a discussion about whether the town should take advantage of a federal program that would pay around 90 percent of the cost to replace three of the town's aging bridges.
With federal money for capital projects that can be blocked by a Republican-led Congress, it can be difficult to obtain funding in mostly Democratic California. Many local governments would jump at the chance to obtain 90 percent funding for bridges that were built 100 or more years ago.
But at the Woodside Town Council table on Nov. 13, the talk for one council member was not centered on protecting future constituents from what will eventually become unsafe bridges but on "taking federal government money borrowed from the Chinese to rebuild bridges in the richest part of the county. ... I have a problem with that," said council member Tom Shanahan, a conservative member of the council.
Mr. Shanahan went on to say: "There must be bridges in England and France that are a lot older than this. I just don't understand what we're doing." Following several seconds of silence in the room, council member Dave Burow said he sympathized with Mr. Shanahan's sentiment, although it was not clear that Mr. Burow would support action based on that line of thinking.
The discussion came up as a professional engineer explained to the council why Caltrans had listed three bridges on Portola, Mountain Home and Kings Mountain roads as "structurally deficient" and "functionally obsolete." In 20 years or so, Caltrans could forbid heavy traffic like cement mixers and possibly fire trucks and garbage trucks from using the bridges, which would severely cripple delivering crucial services to some neighborhoods.
To replace the bridges would cost around $6.5 million, the engineer said, which means Woodside could be on the hook for maybe $750,000. Town Manager Kevin Bryant said the town's $500,000 annual road maintenance allotment could be redirected to defray part of the contribution. The engineer did note that the town could maintain the current bridges on its own and maybe extend their lives by 20 years, but it would cost the town about half of the total cost of the federal project, hardly worth it. Still, the council delayed action until the engineer could assess how much it would cost for the town to do its own bridge maintenance.
Despite the bravado of council member Shanahan about possibly refusing federal money "borrowed from the Chinese," the council has little choice but to begin planning now for new bridges. To not do so would run the risk of Caltrans restricting traffic or placing weight limits on the bridges, which were built when vehicles weighed a fraction of what they do today.
Bringing the bridges up to current standards means they must be widened to accommodate bikes and equestrians, and the approaches must be built to protect vehicles from hitting the blunt ends of the bridge rails. The work will probably make the bridges wider than the roadway, but it should not detract from their rural character once the vegetation grows back.
Besides, like other communities that need to replace bridges and other large infrastructure items, Woodside qualifies to receive $6.5 million from the bridge replacement program. Mr. Shanahan aside, the council did not indicate whether it would accept or refuse federal money. We believe the council should consider this project routine maintenance and start the ball rolling before residents begin to get nervous about following a cement or fire truck over a bridge.