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Healdsburg holds firm on fixing bridge


Healdsburg City Council members Tuesday reaffirmed their intent to fix up a historic Russian River bridge even though funding for the project remains uncertain.

Just when city officials had convinced skeptical federal highway engineers to approve a $12 million rehabilitation of the 90-year-old Healdsburg Memorial Bridge, a court decision last week erased more than $1 million in redevelopment money anticipated for the project.

A state Supreme Court decision that upheld the state's right to dissolve redevelopment agencies means the city can no longer count on using redevelopment money toward its required 12 percent share of the cost.

"I don't want to in any way inhibit the project from moving forward," said City Councilman Jim Wood, echoing the sentiments of his colleagues. But he said he shuddered at the thought of how the city will come up with the $1.4 million it needs for its share of a seismic retrofit and other upgrades for the rusted, but beloved, 90-year-old span.

Despite the cloudy funding outlook, council members agreed Tuesday to maintain the bridge in the future through a variety of potential sources, whether setting aside gas tax revenues, seeking a potential parcel tax increase or tapping into a community benefit fund.

But there is competition for the gas tax funds, which are intended for street maintenance. A parcel tax increase would have to be approved by two-thirds of voters. And council members were hesitant to commit the $600,000 in community benefit money that has been used in the past to fund nonprofit groups and subsidize sewer bills of low-income residents.

As a condition for funding the retrofit of the bridge, federal highway officials insisted the city commit to maintaining it indefinitely.

"We need to put our best foot forward," Mayor Gary Plass said of the city's need to spell out where the money will come from. He warned against "trying to bluff the feds" with vague commitments toward maintenance of the bridge in the future.

Public Works Director Mike Kirn estimated it will cost $134,000 annually to maintain the bridge over the next six decades, without taking inflation into account.

But he was challenged by Mel Amato, a Healdsburg resident who has rallied to save the bridge. Amato said the cost was less than half that, or about $63,000 annually because things such as painting the bridge qualify for future rehabilitation, rather than ongoing maintenance.

The most significant "maintenance" cost as Kirn defined it, is painting, estimated to be more than $3.9 million over the next 60 years. A new coat of paint is needed every 20 years, and a complete paint replacement is required every 60 years, according to consulting engineers.

Federal highway engineers also insist the city make other improvements, including safety barriers, to keep vehicles from hitting the sides of the bridge, and slightly increase the height of the cross members to better accommodate trucks.

The bridge was built in 1921 and became part of the Old Redwood Highway into town before it was supplanted by a wider Highway 101 bridge to the west. It was owned by the state until the early 1960s, when it was transferred to the county. It was annexed to the city in 1981.

The city has never painted the bridge, traffic damage has not been repaired and there has been little, or no, deck and sidewalk maintenance.

But several years ago engineers revised a previous poor rating for the bridge, saying it could carry all legal loads, including large trucks.

In well-attended open houses and public meetings in 2010, Healdsburg residents strongly supported saving and rehabilitating the bridge, as opposed to building a new wider crossing, estimated to cost $25 million, about twice as much as fixing up the current structure.

The City Council agreed to make rehabilitation of the historic structure the "preferred alternative" for an environmental study of the bridge.

Last year, the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places, validating the efforts of residents who rallied to save it.

The planned $12 million rehabilitation and retrofit of the bridge involves bolstering the span to withstand earthquakes, flooding and erosion. It includes sandblasting and painting, repairing damaged structural members, putting in a new deck and railing safety improvements.

Council members expressed optimism that the city's share will be found somehow.

"Call me a Pollyanna; my instinct is redevelopment will not completely go away," said Wood who anticipated there will be some limited reinstatement of redevelopment programs that will loosen up money for such projects.

"Things will be better in a few years," Councilman Tom Chambers said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or

clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.