By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A fight for the future of a small bridge southwest of Sonoma is turning nasty, with county transportation planners and preservationists accusing each other of misleading people at the expense of public safety and taxpayer funds.
Watmaugh Road Bridge was built in 1929 to span Sonoma Creek and connect what is today Arnold Drive and Highway 12 leading into Sonoma.
The bridge’s trademark steel trusses are marred by rust and with no pedestrian access, it’s no place to stop and admire the view. But the span’s connection to the past has led to an acrimonious fight, with some people lamenting how sharp the attacks have gotten.
“It doesn’t need to be adversarial,” said Sonoma Councilman Steve Barbose, who lived near the bridge before he left for law school.
County officials say the bridge is at risk of collapse during an earthquake or major flood because of erosion around the piers that support it. The bridge has the second lowest rating for structural safety of any in Sonoma County, according to Caltrans data.
The rating qualifies the bridge for state and federal funds for the bulk of the replacement cost, which Tom O’Kane, the county deputy director of public works, pegged at $2 to $3 million.
He said putting the project on hold jeopardizes that funding.
“It’s taken more than 10 years to get funding just for the replacement,” he said. “There’s a priority list. If you decide you’re not going to do what you said you would do, you’re going back on the list and you’re not going to the top.”
Preservationists, who include a citizens group and members of the county Landmarks Commission, contend that officials are inflating the risks and that the span can be brought to safety standards without having to replace it.
The bridge is one of two steel truss bridges in Sonoma Valley and in 1981 was designated as a county historic landmark after preservationists saved it from being torn down.
Nancy Simpson, Sonoma Valley’s designate to the Landmarks Commission, said the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Sonoma one of its “dozen distinctive destinations” last week, in part because of the area’s commitment to history.
“The reason we get awards like this is because the cities and communities here have protected our resources which make this place special and different,” she said.
Lorraine Wedekind, who’s lived at the eastern end of the bridge for nearly 70 years, most of it in a house built in 1886, said the span needs work but doesn’t need to be torn down.
Her fear is that Watmaugh Road will have to be widened to accommodate a new bridge and that that will encourage more motorists to speed on the thoroughfare. “If they widen it, this will be a highway,” she said.
Debate over whether to upgrade or replace Sonoma County’s historic bridges usually elicits strong passions, as was the case in Healdsburg and Geyserville where plans to tear down steel-truss bridges that span the Russian River sparked public outcry.
The Watmaugh bridge is a less visible structure. But the debate for its future has been no less heated.
One central point of contention is whether the bridge is “scour critical,” a term that refers to structural erosion due to water and other causes that could possibly lead to collapse.
In a Feb. 15 e-mail, county Transportation and Public Works Director Phil Demery accused Sonoma engineer Robert Garant, a leading preservation advocate, of spreading “misleading information” about the condition of the bridge, and threatened to report him to a state licensing agency.
In his response, Garant offered to retract any statement if Demery could prove him wrong. Garant said he could not find any evidence in his own review of Caltrans data to support the bridge being given the “scour critical” designation, which he noted was made in 2000 based on a calculation.
“From an engineering standpoint it seems inconsistent that a perceived danger as critical as you are implying could go without some sort of remedial action all these years,” Garant wrote to Demery.
The county and Caltrans faced similar criticism over Healdsburg’s Memorial Bridge, which was considered the worst in the county for structural safety until Caltrans re-examined the data and determined that the calculations that led to that rating were off by a significant amount. The bridge is now scheduled for a retro-fit.
Lobbied by preservationists, the Sonoma City Council unanimously voted on Feb. 7 to send a letter to county officials urging them to reconsider replacing the Watmaugh bridge.
O’Kane said he would not comment “on one elected body in one political jurisdiction telling another political jurisdiction what they should do.” He also accused preservationists of engaging in “subterfuge” to advance their arguments.
“The city council was told that it (the bridge) is not in a critical state. It is,” O’Kane said. “The state inspects it every year because they are concerned something dramatic is going to happen.”
Barbose said he asked the council to consider the issue. “All we’re asking them to do is be very careful of preserving the historic district in the area, not telling them what to do.”
O’Kane said in an effort to alleviate concerns, county planners have urged Caltrans to scale down the width for a replacement bridge — from 44 feet to 30, versus the current 22 feet — and asked Caltrans to consider rehabilitating the trusses and putting them back on to the bridge once it is replaced. “Those trusses are what make that bridge historical,” O’Kane said.
He said it would cost as much to retrofit the bridge as it would to replace it, and that the funds that are available to do the work are tied specifically to building a new span.
But O’Kane said he “can pretty much predict” that the Landmarks Commission will recommend saving the bridge once the county formally submits the plans, probably sometime in the spring.
County supervisors appear to have the final say.
Sonoma Valley Supervisor Valerie Brown is in India this week to present a report on the county’s economic programs but in a statement released through her assistant backed county staff.
“My first priority is safety and to maintain the historic nature of the bridge,” she said. “But I cannot ignore the structural deficits, and putting a replacement on hold to find out if we can retrofit, and if there is money for a retrofit, will take years.” She also referenced the tone of the debate between those on both sides of the issue.
“Civil discourse is an important part of any decision making and I appreciate the input and opinions of groups who may differ with what the facts state about the state of this bridge,” she said.