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Decline of iconic Albion bridge stirs debate

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A group of Mendocino Coast residents working to save the historic Albion River Bridge is intensifying its efforts amid plans by Caltrans to conduct drilling and seismic exploration in the area this fall to aid site selection for a new span.

Though no official decision has been made to replace the iconic trestle bridge, Caltrans representatives said recent inspections show the existing 1944 structure is deteriorating quickly, resulting in areas of timber rot, splits in the wood, and corrosion of steel bolts and internal connectors that can only be replaced if the bridge is dismantled.

The bridge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places last year, is entering a phase of “exponential decay,” exacerbated by the harsh marine environment, Caltrans officials said.

“It was never made to last this long,” said Caltrans project manager Frank Demling. “We recognize that it’s very personal, very unique and defines the community. But it’s reaching the end of its service life and just becoming very expensive to maintain, and quite frankly, it’s getting to the point where it’s not possible to justify the amount of funding that we’ll be spending to maintain it.”

Preservationists in the community distrust Caltrans’ assessment of the situation, and argue the agency should do what’s needed to retrofit and maintain the bridge for as long as it can be made to last. They are focused on thwarting disruptive geotechnical studies that Caltrans hopes to complete over about eight weeks this fall to assist with the surveying and design for future bridge rehabilitation or replacement.

The bridge is crossed by about 3,100 vehicles per day.

Caltrans has a pending permit application with the California Coastal Commission for the work.

It would involve removing about 155 bluff-top eucalyptus trees, some with multiple sprouts, grading bluff-top land and establishing drilling platforms — some of them set in place by helicopter.

The plan is to bore holes up to 125 feet deep at six sites to determine subsurface conditions at various locations.

The project also covers site restoration that includes replacement of soil, regrading, seeding and other mitigations.

But Annemarie Weibel, a leading Caltrans critic, said the work would turn Albion into “a war zone.”

She hearkened back to archaeological surveys and related trenching conducted on the flats below the bridge last year that Demling conceded were mishandled by a contractor and had to be called off.

Peter Wells, co-owner of the Albion River Inn off the north end of the bridge, said replacing the span would spoil the visual character of the coastal village with a population of about 170. But even the preconstruction work would be a blow to the picturesque town and its economy, hitting his bluff-top hotel and restaurant, which looks onto the eucalyptus trees slated for removal, particularly hard.

“We have weddings on the bluff there, all within sight of that same area or right next to the dining room, and it’s a total disaster,” Wells said.

Built during World War II, when materials like steel and concrete were diverted to the war effort, the wooden trestle bridge is a unique landmark 150 feet above the Albion River, its airy gridded framework imbuing the view of the headlands at the river mouth with a sense of grace and nostalgia.

It has a charming history, as well. Though plans for a three-arch, concrete span were in place just a month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wartime austerity required a compromise solution.

The resulting bridge was built principally of Douglas fir floated down from Oregon, and a recycled 130-foot steel truss railroad bridge that once spanned the Feather River in Oroville. Salvaged railroad ties were used to reinforce the concrete towers at each end, and the footings of the timber towers.

It is the last wooden trestle bridge on scenic Highway 1, “and for good reason,” Demling said. “They’re high maintenance, and they don’t last.”

The work needed to keep the bridge operational involves periodic replacement of hundreds of large metal bolts that secure the timbers in place, injection of epoxy into splits, or “checks,” in the wood, and seismic reinforcements.

The work has become more complex and time-consuming than the Caltrans maintenance crew can handle, Demling said, driving costs toward a $500,000 a year or more.

Hazardous chemicals including arsenic and chromium used to treat the lumber used in construction have leached into the water and surrounding soil at the base, as well, increasing the wood’s vulnerability to decay, Caltrans said.

“The vast number of people in the transportation corridor wish the bridge to be replaced, with a safe, seismically strong bridge,” said Albion resident Leonardo “Lynn” Bowers, a retired civil engineer.

Bowers said he’s afraid delaying its replacement could eventually force Caltrans to limit use of the 969-foot span, perhaps restricting traffic to one direction at a time or even one vehicle at a time.

Demling said construction of a new bridge could begin around 2023 and last three years, at an estimated cost of $45 million.

But Weibel and other self-appointed Albion Bridge stewards are working to preserve the original.

Though relatively small in number, they have a key ally in Los Angeles-based private equity investment banker John Danhakl, who owns a horse ranch on the ridge above Albion and a coastal estate in nearby Little River.

Danhakl, managing partner at Leonard Green & Partners, has retained a lawyer, land-use consultants and a structural engineering professor from UC Berkeley, Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, who at one public meeting last month accused Caltrans of falsifying data to justify replacing the trestle bridge. Demling vehemently denied it.

In a letter last week, Danhakl’s attorney petitioned the California Coastal Commission to halt action on Caltrans’ geotechnical permit request until a complete environmental analysis can be completed.

“Caltrans admits that the geotechnical investigation will result in removal of major vegetation, grading resulting in the lowering of the bluff and permanent changes to visual resources, among other impacts,” the letter states.

Danhakl was not available for comment.

A hearing on the matter before the Coastal Commission scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed until at least July.

In the meantime, 29-year resident Jim Heid, 57, called the “amount of environmental disruption” the work would cause “inappropriate” given the environmentally sensitive habitat in the area and the river’s state Wild and Scenic River designation.

Critics question Caltrans’ credibility in large part because of a 2015 inspection report that cited cracking and raveling on the deck surface as evidence the entire deck might need to be replaced.

After further investigation, including core sampling, replacement of the deck wasn’t justified, but because the work recommendation had been advanced, Caltrans seemed to be crying wolf.

Others say questioning authority is just ingrained with the town’s citizens, many of whom arrived in the 1960s and ’70s amid a wave of “back to the land” enthusiasm and communal living.

Bill Heil, 77, is one of them.

“There’s some of us from the ’60s who have a hard time trusting the government, but for Caltrans that seems to be particularly hard,” Heil said. “I think that bridge is unique enough that if it needs some repairs they should be figuring out how to do the repairs, rather than saying, ‘Well, we can’t do them.’ ”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Caltrans project manager Frank Demling is not an engineer. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described his title. An accompanying photo, taken from a Caltrans report, showed an unused, rusting utility conduit along the bridge. It is not part of the bridge’s support structure. The caption has been updated.

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