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 <NO1><NO>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.