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Sonoma bridge debate gets nasty

  • The Watmaugh Bridge in Sonoma, California on Tuesday, February 22, 2011. (BETH SCHLANKER/ 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.

Watmaugh Road Bridge In Sonoma

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"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.


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