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Supervisors eye permanent solution as costly seasonal bridges at Asti, Guerneville set to reopen

Public works crews have restored a seasonal crossing that spans the Russian River just south of Cloverdale in a costly, century-old exercise that the county hopes to permanently solve within the next decade.

The Asti bridge at Washington School Road is set to open ahead of schedule next week, and is one of three temporary crossings throughout Sonoma County that are still rebuilt and torn down annually. But the price tag for the work continues to climb, and was made worse by recent flood years that led to erosion, increasing both complexity and cost of the operation.

The roughly 100-foot north county crossing - this year created with culverts, packed dirt and bridge decks instead of a standard bridge - is by far the priciest of the three. But the two others, a pair of 60-foot spans near Guerneville that provide access each summer to Vacation Beach and Odd Fellows roads, also don’t come cheap. Combined, the trio set the county back more than $820,000 last year. Two-thirds of that went toward just the Asti crossing, according to Johannes Hoevertsz, the county’s director of transportation and public works.

“It went way higher on Asti, and that’s why it was, ‘Whoa, we have to do something different here,’?” he said. “Because it’s now well over a half-million (dollars) on one site, and that is concerning.”

Supervisors for the two county districts that include the bridges that go up before June 15 each summer are exploring ways to end the 100-year-old tradition. They’re mapping out plans to save taxpayer money while also improving access needs for nearby residents who use the crossings for recreation, but also as critical fire escape routes.

“That really came to light as the fire seasons worsened,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district encompasses the west county area. “We know that fire season can start early and end late, so it would really behoove us to have a year-round bridge for purposes of evacuation. Why pay for a temporary solution year after year that doesn’t quite meet the needs of fire safety in these communities?”

In 2017, the annual bridgework cost the county about $273,000, the majority of it toward Asti. The next year, Asti alone cost more than $280,000 to install and remove before winter as part of a nearly $442,000 expenditure due to flooding.

Hoevertsz said his department found some savings this year compared to the all-time high in 2019, but still estimates the work to run at least $650,000 this season. The rising costs have accelerated plans to address the bridges for good, with Asti as the top priority.

A citizen group in Alexander Valley previously agreed to fund a study for a permanent structure at Asti and is now ready to negotiate becoming a taxable district to help fund what estimates show could be as much as a $20 million bridge. Under a plan that Hoevertsz will present to the Board of Supervisors for approval in early June, the county would begin socking away upwards of $300,000 each year in infrastructure funds and develop an 80-20 split with the residents seeking the long-term solution once the bridge district is formed.

“This area is definitely fire country. It’s not an exaggeration,” said Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the Asti bridge. “It was within an eyelash of burning down in 2017 from the Pocket fire, so it’s our responsibility to also provide public safety access for those residents. The neighbors have really stepped up out there and organized, and are working with Johannes on when it’s going in, when it’s coming out and how is it working, so my hat’s off to them.”

The county would then hope to leverage its Asti bridge fund against state grants or loans, as well as any money in a potential federal infrastructure package, to complete the crossing. If all goes to plan, the project would get underway in 2023 or 2024 and take two or three years to finish, said Hoevertsz. In a worst-case scenario, it could be a dozen years out from this season.

“This is not an easy task. We’re building a crossing over the Russian River,” he said. “If we can get out of doing this every year, I think it’s a plus for everyone and a solution that works for everyone, not just drop it and walk away. And the sooner we do it, if we’re in construction within three years, it’s another project to stimulate the economy and provide jobs in Sonoma County.”

In another item his department will bring before the board next month, Hoevertsz will request $20,000 to conduct a study on the Vacation Beach location to begin working on a permanent bridge there next. Odd Fellows, the far easiest and least expensive of the annual crossings, would go last.

The Odd Fellows bridge was already reinstalled earlier this month. Crews have run into brief delays on the Vacation Beach crossing because of recent rains, but hope to begin buildout in the next week.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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