Healdsburg's historic Russian River bridge is going to be saved, but there is no need for a modern bridge to replace it or be built right next to it.

That was the upshot Tuesday night of a unanimous City Council decision to make rehabilitation of the Healdsburg Avenue Bridge the top priority, or the "preferred alternative" for an environmental study examining the fate of the 1921 span.

"That bridge is part of who we are," said City Councilwoman Lisa Wittke Schaffner, reflecting the passion of those who advocated that the bridge be preserved. "Financially, I believe we cannot afford a new bridge," she said.

It was a view shared by many others.

"I'd love to see it restored, refurbished, not an additional bridge built," said Mary Curran, a Healdsburg resident told the council. "You know you're home with that nice peaceful drive across the bridge."

The fate of the 89-year-old crossing, also referred to as the Healdsburg Memorial Bridge, has been debated off and on since 1979 when a Caltrans gave it a failing grade, with the worst "sufficiency" rating in the county.

But the bridge got a new lease on life three years ago when the rating was found to be based on erroneous calculations. Engineers then acknowledged the bridge can carry all legal loads, including semi-trucks.

The narrowness of the bridge and questions about its earthquake and flood safety still made it a pressing issue for the City Council.

Earlier this year, the city hired consultants Omni-Means Ltd. of Roseville to analyze alternatives for fixing or replacing it. Since March, there have been a half-dozen workshops and meetings to consider the issue. The overwhelming sentiment expressed by the public has been to save the historic span.

Last month, consultants came up with their top recommendation for environmental study — preserve the old bridge as a bicycle and pedestrian crossing, but build a new 48-foot bridge immediately upstream for motor vehicles.

It proved a highly unpopular recommendation. Instead, the City Council agreed Tuesday night with preservationists who said rehabilitation of the old bridge should take precedence during environmental studies, which are expected to take a year to complete.

Bridge lovers say the rare, steel-truss structure has been neglected but is structurally sound and doing the job it began in 1921, when it carried the first highway to Healdsburg over the Russian River.

This summer, it was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places by the state Office of Historic Preservation.

But consultants said the problem is that the old bridge is too narrow and increased bridge capacity is needed to accommodate projected traffic demands as a result of future development along Healdsburg Avenue, south of the river.

Critics, however, said traffic forecasts for that area were grossly inflated and a parallel concrete bridge would destroy the iconic appearance of Healdsburg's gateway.

All of the options favored by consultants included saving the old bridge. At an estimated cost of $25 million, they said a new wider bridge can be built and the old one would have some limited rehabilitation, to better withstand earthquakes and high waters.

More than 88 percent of the cost would be covered by state and federal funds.

But simply keeping the existing bridge without adding a new one next to it would require greater maintenance and rehabilitation, according to Public Works Director Mike Kirn. As a result, the cost of that option would be $17.3 million, which includes more than $5 million of "lifecycle maintenance" over 60 years.

That more extensive rehabilitation would involve painting, a new deck, sidewalks and addressing river-flow scouring issues, according to Kirn.

Skeptics however, said the rehabilitation costs were inflated. And they said a new bridge would require condemnation of private property, including five commercial buildings, seven mobile homes and more than two acres of land.

Consultants scrutinized more than a dozen options for dealing with the bridge. A couple of their other top alternatives involve relocating the existing bridge to the north, or south, and erecting a new bridge in its place.

Their preferred alternative proposed side-by-bridges, a new one dedicated to cars and the historic bridge dedicated to bicycles and pedestrians. Traffic from both bridges would funnel into a new roundabout where Healdsburg Avenue, Kennedy Lane and Front Street converge.