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Albion – From the surface of Highway 1, which hugs windswept cliffs and spans more than two dozen rivers as it snakes along the Mendocino Coast, there is little remarkable about the Albion River bridge except for the spectacular views it offers.

But taken in from the bluffs or the river inlet below, the two-lane span presents an entirely different, awe-inspiring spectacle: a towering, wooden structure with criss-crossing support beams that conjure images of tinker-toys and old roller coasters.

It’s a view that residents of the tiny burg cherish but that is now threatened under Caltrans’ plan to replace the 70-year-old bridge with a wider, sturdier modern span. The plan has triggered a standoff little noticed beyond this far flung stretch of coast, pitting those who say the landmark bridge should remain — it is the only wooden truss span left in California on Highway 1 — against a state agency that has concluded it is outdated, too narrow and seismically unsafe for the estimated 3,000-plus vehicles that cross it every day.

Those who want the bridge to stay have marshaled an engineering professor from UC Berkeley into their cause, using questions he has posed to chip away at Caltrans’ safety conclusions. But they also are lobbying for the structure to remain on more symbolic terms, as a historic landmark befitting Albion’s reputation as a place apart, a hamlet that, while located along the state’s main coastal byway, maintains a fierce independence characterized by the hippies who moved here decades ago to pursue alternative lifestyles.

“I do think it’s a rare treasure,” said Tom Wodetzki, who moved to Albion 40 years ago as part of a commune.

The hippie migration gave birth to the Albion Nation — activists who continue to pursue environmental and social causes and to question authority.

The town has a population of fewer than 200 at its core and fewer than 1,000 people including the surrounding areas.

The downtown, just south of the bridge, is comprised of a post office and small hardware and grocery stores. At the mouth of the Albion River is a campground and boat docks with views of the bolted bones of the 150-foot-tall bridge. One resident compared standing under its 969-foot-long span to “a religious experience.”

“Albion does love that bridge; it’s part of our landscape,” said another resident, Tim Bray, a semi-retired hydrogeologist.

But Caltrans says the bridge has to go. It was built at the end of World War II, when standard bridge construction utilized steel and concrete. But steel was being conserved for use in the war effort so only a small portion of the bridge — the section directly over the Albion River channel — is made of modern bridge-building materials while the majority is built of pressure-treated Douglas fir.

“It’s all the steel they could allocate,” said Caltrans’ spokesman Phil Frisbie. It was supposed to be a temporary bridge, he said.

“This was only designed to have a life of 25 to 30 years,” Frisbie said.

The cost of the Albion bridge replacement is estimated at $24 million to $30 million, Frisbie said. It would continue to have just two traffic lanes but would be wider to accommodate shoulders for stalled cars and pedestrian and bike traffic. A design has not yet been chosen, but it will be built of steel and concrete. Caltrans hopes to begin construction in 2017 and have it completed in 2020.

Caltrans also wants to replace the Salmon Creek bridge, a half mile to the south. That plan, with an estimated cost of $16 million to $26 million, has raised additional concerns about noise, traffic delays and impacts on local businesses. But the Salmon Creek bridge — built in the 1950s of steel and concrete — is fairly conventional and has not elicited the same emotional reaction as the span over the Albion River.

The standoff with Caltrans is also not entirely uniform. A majority of local residents initially supported the Albion bridge replacement, according to Wodetzki. Yet many now say they are torn. They would like a safer, wider bridge with room for walkers and cyclists, but at the same time, they say they would miss the existing bridge.

“I haven’t made up my mind,” said Bray, the hydrogeologist.

The debate reflects both a desire to hold onto a piece of local history and public skepticism of a state agency that seems to be caught in a never-ending run of bad news about cost overruns on its big projects, including the $6.4 billion spent on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

An ongoing project in Mendocino County — the Highway 101 bypass around Willits — has been marked by protests over the destruction of wetlands and delays linked to permits.

Some Albion residents are determined to make their opposition to the disputed bridge project known before the proposal advances any further. Protests mounted during construction are too late to be effective, Wodestzki said.

He organized the first meeting for residents about the bridge plans in March. “I thought, let’s start the process now,” he said.

Another meeting on the bridges last week at an Albion restaurant drew about 60 people and reflected a lack of faith in Caltrans. John Danhakl, an Albion landowner and managing partner in a Los Angeles-based private equity firm who is opposed to the bridge project, hired Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, a UC Berkeley civil and environmental engineering professor who specializes in studying structural damage from earthquakes and terrorist bombings, to evaluate Caltrans’ studies.

Astaneh-Asl largely rebutted the need to replace the Albion River and Salmon Creek bridges.

He told the crowd that he did not yet have access to all of Caltrans’ reports, but from what he has read and seen for himself of the Albion bridge, it’s in better condition than Caltrans’ officials have indicated.

He said the bridge was well-designed, of historical significance, in better shape than many other bridges in the state and worthy of saving.

“It’s amazing,” he said of the bridge design. He urged the community to ask Caltrans to “please keep this bridge.”

Caltrans officials will respond to Astaneh-Asl’s statements, along with other public comments, in the bridge project’s environmental impact report, Frisbie said.

He noted the professor admitted he did not have all the information necessary to draw a definitive conclusion.

According to Caltrans, the bridge is not up to current building and safety standards, requires frequent maintenance that costs about $100,000 a year, and may have rot hidden within its joints. A significant tsunami could knock down its supports, causing the bridge to collapse, Frisbie said.

The new bridge would be built before the old bridge is dismantled, Frisbie said. The old bridge could be left in place as a foot and bicycle route, but the county would need to take it over and pay maintenance and improvement costs, something it has so far not shown any interest in doing, he said.

The opinion provided by Astaneh-Asl swayed some people in favor of saving the bridge.

Ron Stark, who’s lived in Albion since 1990, said he was undecided before the meeting. Now “I think it probably should be saved,” he said.

Others were undecided or held to their original stance.

Bray said he hasn’t made up his mind partly because saving the bridge would require significant disruption to traffic, businesses and residents’ lives. Traffic would have to be restricted and even halted altogether for repairs and upgrades. On the other hand, if the current bridge is replaced, the old bridge would remain operational during construction.

Ongoing maintenance on the existing bridges has also taken its toll on some residents. For several months last year, an incessant racket echoed through the area while workers repainted the steel on both the Albion River and Salmon Creek bridges.

“You might as well live next to a freeway,” Bray said.

The issue has generated split opinions in some households. Bob Rogina, a general engineering contractor, likes the bridge but is favor of replacing it. His wife wants it saved.

“I’m an artist. I want to paint it,” Carol Rogina said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

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