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Highway 101 bike bridge, small cell rules go before City Council

A long-sought bridge for cyclists and pedestrians over Highway 101 in Santa Rosa and new local rules for upgraded wireless technology both went before the City Council earlier this week, offering incremental updates on the two slow-moving projects.

The $27 million overpass project, which dates back to the mid-1990s, continued its slog toward construction, now estimated to begin in fall 2021 and finish in summer 2023 — nearly 30 years after it was conceived, according to city documents.

The city has yet to secure any outside funding for the project but plans to request $12 million from a state program later this year.

That money would go a long way toward covering the cost of designing and building the 17-foot-wide overcrossing. The bridge would be amid some of Santa Rosa’s most congested and dangerous roadways for bicyclists and pedestrians, including nearby stretches of Guerneville Road, Steele Lane and Mendocino Avenue.

Some residents Tuesday called on the city to improve the design of the bridge to make it more of an artistic statement, rekindling a long-running debate at the heart of the proposal.

“A lot of people go up and down 101 and to have something that would stick in their minds about Santa Rosa, I think it would be by far preferable,” said a caller who identified himself as David Harris.

The new bridge would feature a tower on the eastern side of the highway near Armory Drive that would serve as an anchor for steel support cables. Construction would require temporary nighttime closures both of Highway 101 and the nearby highway frontage roads, as well as the closure of SRJC parking spaces.

The occasion for bringing the project before the council Tuesday was the draft of an environmental study for the project, which is currently pending review. City staff also took the opportunity to confirm that council members continued to favor a bridge alignment that would connect Elliott Avenue just north of Santa Rosa Junior College, on the east side of the highway, and Edwards Avenue just south of the Dick’s Sporting Goods on the west side.

(City of Santa Rosa)
(City of Santa Rosa)

Council members expressed their support of that alignment and the project on the whole, and some indicated they would also favor some visual enhancements that would make the bridge something of a local landmark.

“I think the options for making this really an iconic crossing — the potential is definitely there for our community,” said Mayor Tom Schwedhelm.

The city then turned its attention to small cell wireless technology, which providers have rolled out to fill coverage gaps that exist between larger, more powerful transmission towers.

A vocal minority of residents over several study sessions — four now since March 2018 — have repeatedly asked the city to step up regulation on small cell installation, citing their fears of health risks from exposure to wireless frequencies as well as aesthetic concerns.

“We’re pretty much in the same place we’ve been for two and a half years,” said a member of the public who identified himself as Bob Williams. He went on to liken the process to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Disneyland and criticized the city for leaving the public out of the staff review process for new small cell sites.

Concerns about small cell equipment, as well as the rollout of 5G wireless technology, have existed since early 2017, when the City Council changed local rules to allow cellular companies to set up the equipment on city-owned utility poles in the public right of way. Verizon has built 31 such small cell facilities on city poles in Santa Rosa, and AT&T has recently applied to build several more, according to city documents.

(City of Santa Rosa)
(City of Santa Rosa)

Santa Rosa lacks the regulatory power of the Federal Communications Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission and cannot enact regulations that ban or add up to a prohibition of wireless services.

The city can, however, pass objective rules on design and development of wireless facilities, such as distance buffers, visual screening requirements and limits on equipment size and placement.

City staff will get to work on drafting potential standards and preferences guiding small cell locations, said Gabe Osburn, the city’s deputy director of development services. That could include rules that steer new small cell equipment toward commercial zones and away from residential areas, schools and day cares.

The city would still have to allow telecommunications providers to add new facilities if they can demonstrate a need to improve their coverage, Osburn said, but the new policies could balance the wireless providers’ coverage goals with community concerns.

“We’re going to try to address those concerns,” Osburn said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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