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CORRECTION: December 7, 2010:

This story misstated the position of Santa Rosa Councilman John Sawyer about a bridge project. Sawyer said he is inclined to vote against funding more studies of a proposed bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Highway 101. He said he does not want to "kill" the project but to delay spending money on it until more information is known, such as the location of a light rail station.


The balance of political power in Santa Rosa shifts this week, but instead of a smooth transition, the new City Council instead appears headed for a showdown over a bicycle bridge.

Councilman John Sawyer's threat to try to block the proposed pedestrian and bicycle bridge over Highway 101 as soon as the new majority is installed at Tuesday's meeting has outraged bicycle advocates and all but assured continued council acrimony.

"It's not a great way to start," said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University. "There's 23 months to the new election and there's a lot of work to be done."

Proponents say blocking the bridge would turn away potential jobs, hamper economic development and hurt efforts to create a connection between Santa Rosa Junior College on the east side of the freeway and Coddingtown mall and a future light rail station on the west.

Sawyer's move "hit people to the core" because it showed them that elections have consequences, said Christine Culver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

"I think it was a bit of a surprise to folks to realize that a change on City Council could set bicycling in Santa Rosa back 10 years," Culver said.

Culver sent an "action alert" to her group's 1,100 members urging them to turn out at Tuesday's meeting to support the project, donning not only biking gear but work clothes to show they represent a broad swath of the community.

But Sawyer isn't backing down over a project the city has said could cost up to $20 million. He says the support he has received in recent days from constituents has only strengthened his resolve to block the project. The public isn't in the mood to see a large public works project with too many unknowns aimed at a relatively small group of users, he said.

"There are many people out there that are struggling, and to spend money like that right now is difficult to justify," Sawyer said.

The flare-up reflects the polarized political dynamic at work nationally, McCuan said. Voters remain surly following the Nov. 2 election, which tends to make politicians "hyper-sensitive" and compromise harder to achieve, he said.

In Santa Rosa, those who have held power for the past two years — the four more environmentally leaning council members, often referred to as "progressives" — and their supporters don't want to "go gently into that fair wind," McCuan said.

The council's most staunch environmentalist, Veronica Jacobi, lost her re-election bid. As a result, a slim 4-3 majority was regained by candidates supported by business and development interests.

Against this backdrop, the overpass has become a symbolic issue with no middle ground, one that risks opening wounds that are slow to heal, McCuan said.

"The good news is that the battle lines have been drawn early," he said. "It's bad news for what the tenor of things looks like for the near term. The art of compromise has really been lost."

Advocates for the bridge say it is too important to let it fall victim to politics.

"It would be a shame if our community loses this project. It would be a huge blow for economic development for that region," Vice Mayor Gary Wysocky said.

The project would create much needed construction jobs, help rejuvenate Coddingtown mall and provide an important access route to the future Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station, all of which are in the city's best interests, Wysocky said.

Preliminary cost estimates range from $10 million to $14 million, according to Steven Grover, the Berkeley architect who performed a feasibility study.

Public works officials have said costs for the bridge and surrounding improvements could increase the price-tag to as much as $20 million, given the complexity of the project and uncertain timing.

Whatever the cost, proponents say most of the funding would come from grants and not the cash-strapped city's coffers, a point they say is crucial but has been lost in the debate.

The $100,000 in redevelopment funds the council is being asked to spend on the next study could be used as leverage for millions of dollars in state and federal grants, Mayor Susan Gorin said.

The project has a good chance of securing grants because it promises to accomplish numerous green transportation goals supported by federal and state grant money, said Colleen Ferguson, deputy director of engineering services for the city's public works department.

"From my perspective, the project has a lot going for it," Ferguson said.

The overcrossing would connect a large employer like SRJC to a light rail station and high-density housing. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by giving people a way to get out of their cars. And it would improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists who now make the difficult crossing under Highway 101 using College Avenue or Steele Lane, she said.

To date, studies of the project have been funded with $200,000 in city money and $50,000 from Measure M, the 2004 transportation ballot initiative. Santa Rosa Junior College has also pledged to put $1 million toward the project if it gets under way by 2012. It set aside the money to settle a 2004 lawsuit brought by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition over the college's $31 million parking garage.

Since the grant money the city is eyeing is specifically set aside for such projects, Culver said, it would be foolish not to take the steps necessary to obtain the funds.

"If we don't use that money, it goes to some other city," she said.

Public works director Rick Mosier agrees the project could get significant grant money, but is cautious about overselling its chances.

"It's a contender, but it's far from a sure thing," Mosier said.

The city has a good track record of cobbling together grants to get infrastructure projects done, and there's every reason to believe this project would be no different, he said. But how much it would ultimately cost, how much the city would need to spend, and the percentage that would be paid for with grants are all unknown at this point.

"It's pretty hard to handicap it," Mosier said.

Grover said the success of other communities around the Bay Area in getting funding for such bridges is a strong indication that a similar project in Santa Rosa would also qualify.

Generally speaking, local agencies must put up at least an 11 percent match to be in the running for transportation grants, Grover said. The costs can run higher, though. A bridge that opened in Sunnyvale last year cost $8.4 million, of which 21 percent, or $1.8 million, came from local dollars, according to Grover.

If the city were guaranteed $20 million in grants to build the bridge, the debate would be very different, Sawyer said.

Without such guarantees, council members must judge whether spending more money on studies now is a good investment. Sawyer has concluded it is not.

The argument that the $100,000 would come from a redevelopment district or that grants will pay for most of the costs hasn't convinced most people he's heard from that the project is a wise use of public dollars.

They are hurting, they know the state and federal governments are hurting and don't want to see tax money wasted, whatever the source, Sawyer said.

Roger McConnell, a retired carpenter, summed up this viewpoint best at the council meeting last week.

"It all comes out of one pocket — our pocket," McConnell said.

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