By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Doug McKenzie commutes on his bicycle from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg, a 27-mile roundtrip he typically makes several times a week
With a good tailwind, he can make it one way in less than 40 minutes, cruising up Old Redwood Highway and across the vintage Healdsburg Memorial Bridge into town.
But with the planned closure of the 91-year-old bridge late next year for major rehabilitation work lasting 18 to 24 months, McKenzie and other cyclists are facing a major dilemma, if not a significant detour.
City officials said the bridge will be closed during the work to all traffic, including cars, bikes and pedestrians.
For cars and trucks, it’s no big deal: They have Highway 101 to use as an alternative.
But unless the city comes up with a plan, cyclists potentially would have no other way to cross the river than riding 10 miles out Westside Road to Wohler Bridge near Forestville.
“It will definitely affect me,” said McKenzie who works part time as a mechanic at Spoke Folk Cyclery in Healdsburg. “That would add probably a half-hour at least in each direction. I work out of my house too. That would cut into my other job.”
More is at stake than the ride of a committed bike commuter. Healdsburg, with its surrounding vineyards, trees, hills and country roads, is a hub for cycling tourists and recreational riders.
A number of organized rides and cycling tours incorporate a trip across the Healdsburg bridge, with its leisurely 15 mph speed limit.
“It’s a pretty significant connector for all of us,” said John Mastrianni, owner of Wine Country Bike on Front Street. “We send hundreds of people across that bridge.”
And pedestrians use the bridge to cross over to Healdsburg Memorial Beach, especially on crowded days when the parking lot there overflows and cars are diverted to the other side of the river.
With the bridge out of commission, “there’s no good detour. There’s not a good shortcut,” said Councilman Tom Chambers, an avid recreational cyclist. “It’s not acceptable to not have an alternative.:
Healdsburg is a national cycling mecca, said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, but “it will be a disincentive for bicycle tourism to have no other way to cross the Russian River.”
“The city needs to recognize bicycle tourism is second only to wine in terms of putting heads into beds,” he said of the effect on hotel occupancy.
McKenzie and others are confident some solution will be found.
On Monday night after hearing from cyclists, the City Council agreed that the most viable option appeared to be to obtain approval to use the old railroad bridge just upstream for bikes and pedestrians.
But using the rail bridge assumes there will be no resumption of freight or passenger train service in the next two to three years. It could involve environmental reviews and would require approval from the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency that owns the bridge, along with the North Coast Railroad Authority and state Public Utilities Commission.
Modifications also would be needed for an all-weather deck to accommodate foot and bike traffic, said city officials, because of gaps and hazardous spots on the tracks now. And a property easement would be needed to connect to Healdsburg Avenue.
“It’s amazing the hoops you have to jump through to get people across a body of water,” said Councilman Jim Wood.
Chambers noted that during the recent water carnival, probably 200 people walked across the railroad bridge.
Councilwoman Susan Jones said it makes sense to pursue legal use of the bridge because people will use it anyway.
But Mayor Gary Plass said there are still unanswered questions about cost — perhaps $100,000, public works officials said — and where the money will come from.
He suggested it may take a public-private partnership to raise the money.
There were other potential options identified by the public works department, ranging from obtaining permission to use the Highway 101 shoulder for cyclists and pedestrians.
Using Highway 101 also is no sure thing. It would require approval from Caltrans and could involve protective barriers separating cyclists and pedestrians from traffic, which alone could cost $200,000, Public Works Director Mike Kirn said.
While bicycles are allowed in some stretches of Highway 101, including between Petaluma and Novato and a segment near Hopland, many cyclists are leery of being that close to fast-moving traffic.
And it could take away the shoulder for vehicles that break down.
Another idea — a shuttle bus to take cyclists across the Highway 101 bridge — is considered inconvenient for cyclists who would have to wait for the bus.
Plass said there is still time to come up with a solution.
“No one needs to panic,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.