Caltrans scraps plan to replace aging Bohemian Highway Bridge in Monte Rio leaving Sonoma County officials scrambling

Caltrans cites ballooning cost estimates for the decision not to fund a full replacement of the aging and seismically deficient Bohemian Highway Bridge.|

Caltrans has abruptly scrapped plans to replace the Bohemian Highway Bridge in Monte Rio, leaving Sonoma County officials scrambling to determine how to upgrade the 89-year-old span across the Russian River.

Caltrans notified the county that skyrocketing costs, now estimated at $88 million, made it infeasible for the agency to fund a full bridge replacement. The cost includes utility relocation and environmental work, county officials said.

Instead, Caltrans is offering about $25 million in state and federal funding to retrofit the iconic green bridge and “is committed to working with the county to help identify other potential funding sources.”

But there appears to have been a significant communication gap in the process that led to the decision, as well as uncertainty about how local and state agencies could have such drastically differing expectations for the project cost.

“It just feels like, after seven years of hard work and partnership, they pulled the rug out from under us,” said west Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes Monte Rio.

The county “has been in lockstep with Caltrans” over years of meetings on the subject, she said. “I can confirm that we have clearly articulated our plan to them since 2017, when I began working on the project.”

But somehow the county was unaware of limits on what Caltrans could spend from its local bridge and seismic retrofit accounts, which includes significant funding from the Federal Highway Administration.

A Caltrans spokesman said that meetings and communication deemed close and collaborative by county officials were, perhaps, less so — that Caltrans had merely an “oversight” role as the county pursued site and design alternatives and completed its environmental review.

“Caltrans wasn’t working hand in glove with the county on this,” agency spokesman Jeff Weiss said. “We conferred with them, but they hired their own contractors to do the design.”

He said the original estimate for the project was just under $15 million in 2013. By 2018, it had risen to around $25 million.

And Caltrans was prepared to go along with that. But when the final cost estimate arrived and had “ballooned” to $80 million-plus, it generated alarm in the department.

“We really don’t have that kind of wiggle room,” Weiss said.

Christened in 1934 with vodka and Champagne at a dedication ceremony attended by then-California Gov. Frank Merriam, the bridge has long stood as the focal point of Monte Rio, an unincorporated town divided by the Russian River.

It is designated a Sonoma County Historic Landmark.

But the ground on which it stands is vulnerable to liquefaction. Scouring and erosion around the wooden piles in the riverbed that support it are a problem, as well.

Located within 15 miles of three major earthquake faults, the bridge was identified by the state in 1997 as needing mandatory retrofits. Metal fatigue and aging concrete are additional concerns, as is potential flooding.

Moreover, the narrow bridge has inadequate shoulders and lacks any way for pedestrians and cyclists to cross.

Buses and large vehicles trying to cross must wait at one end for both lanes to clear before proceeding across, said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman. Other drivers routinely clip their side mirrors, leaving shattered glass on the bridge deck, he said.

Early on, cost estimates suggested replacement was roughly comparable to a complex retrofit of the steel and concrete structure — even slightly less, at one point, officials said.

Though it carries a county highway, the span — like others in California — is inspected by the state and eligible for Caltrans funding, in part through the seismic retrofit program.

But a retrofit was ultimately discarded in favor of replacement because, while more costly, a new bridge would have a service life of 75 years or more. Rehabilitation of the existing truss bridge only extends its life span 15 to 20 years, according to a formal evaluation of the project published last year.

Weiss, the Caltrans spokesman, said retrofit by replacement is an option, within limits. “Because it’s a statewide program, we cannot overspend by wide margins in one location. We have to stick within a budget,” he said.

Hopkins said the county was not informed of the limitations, however, adding that staff turnover at Caltrans might account for the “breakdown in communication.”

It’s also true that the design had to be finished before the county could estimate construction costs, leading to a “chicken and egg thing.”

“The working premise was that Caltrans would fully fund the project,” Hopkins said.

In the meantime, construction costs increased dramatically in recent years. Combined with design elements that bring it up to state standards and meet community’s expectations for the landmark crossing, the final cost estimate escalated dramatically, Johannes Hoevertsz, director of Sonoma County’s Department of Public Infrastructure, said.

Precisely when it became apparent to Caltrans just how high the cost had risen is not clear, but Weiss said an alarm was raised within the agency as early as May 11.

But Caltrans’ decision to pull back on replacement came out of the blue, as far as county officials are concerned. It leaves them pressed to devise plans for a complex retrofit in time to meet a commitment already made to Caltrans to begin construction by 2027.

And it’s confounded individuals like him and Hopkins.

“We meet with them, if not every month, every quarter,” Hoevertsz said, “and we have been working with them in lockstep.”

Yet, it wasn’t until the county sent its request for authorization to proceed with construction that the state agency said it no longer could fund a new bridge, he said.

Caltrans’ decision also upends years of collaboration between county and state transportation personnel on placement and design of a new bridge. It also undermines extensive community engagement begun in 2016 to help determine its route across the river, provide bike and pedestrian access and aesthetic considerations that would come into play.

“It was very clear that, for seven years, we’ve been working on a new bridge — not just to improve the old one,” Hopkins said.

After evaluation of various alternatives, the new bridge was designed at 864 feet long, almost 100 feet longer than the existing span, beginning on Monte Rio Recreation and Parks land near the public beach on the north end and ending just east of Noel’s Automotive at Main Street and Moscow Road.

It was to include bicycle access from the triangle bounded by D Street, Bohemian Highway and Highway 116, with sufficient space under the arching sides of the bridge to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists.

“The chief advantage to everybody was the bridge would be wider, and there would be bike lanes,” Baxman said. “It’s really a narrow bridge. People are breaking mirrors all the time on that bridge.”

Now, said Marina McTaggart, park district administrator, “there’s no plan. There’s no concrete information for when they’re going to start this work.”

“After six years to be back at square one is just ridiculous,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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