Tree removal at Albion River Bridge sparks new opposition

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Work crews have descended on the Mendocino coast to fell eucalyptus trees and prepare for contested drilling and geotechnical studies that will help determine the fate of the Albion River Bridge, inciting renewed outrage among locals.

Opponents have tried to block Caltrans’ project — so far, unsuccessfully — by every means possible, including a failed legal bid to stop the project and a still-pending request for the California Coastal Commission to rescind the work permit it approved last month.

But the critics battle onward, their zeal intensified by the arrival of heavy equipment in their quiet town and the removal this week of more than a dozen eucalyptus trees from a Caltrans right-of-way at the edge of Highway 1, on the north end of the bridge.

“It’s radicalized lots of folks to actually see the trees come down and the bulldozers,” 29-year Albion resident Jim Heid, a leading opponent, said this week. “It’s brought it home. It’s made it real to a whole lot of people. If Caltrans thinks that they’ve won the war by winning this battle, they are sorely mistaken.”

The drilling itself is expected to start around the second week of November and last six to eight weeks, project manager Frank Demling said.

In the meantime, Caltrans and its contractors have continued to refine the project, principally by reducing the number of trees that will be removed to accommodate staging and movement of large equipment.

With permits to remove 55 trees from the state right-of-way, 14 trees greater than 4 inches in diameter have come out, along with 15 saplings, he said.

And though still surprised by the locals’ attachment to invasive, nonnative plants, “we recognize that the community wants Caltrans to keep as many of those trees as possible,” Demling said.

At issue is the future of a historic landmark that spans the bluffs above the Albion River where it runs out to Albion Cove and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Built during World War II austerity, when concrete and steel were largely diverted to the war effort, the 74-year-old structure is the only timber trestle bridge on the California Coast.

Caltrans says it is safe to use.

But its components are rotting and corroding in the salt air, requiring increasingly costly maintenance and repair on a bridge with a remaining service life of only 10 or 20 years, Demling said. The ongoing decline necessitates about $500,000 a year in maintenance, he said.

Caltrans next year plans a large rehabilitation job that includes repairing cracked timbers and replacing 1,100 bolts in the bridge. The project also will allow for a close look at internal steel connector rings engineers feel may be vulnerable.

The geotechnical investigation involves drilling nine bore holes 70 to 125 deep at six sites — two on the south end of the bridge and four on the north.

The totality of what Caltrans and its contractors find during underground drilling this fall, what continued inspections reveal and what is eventually spelled out during a full life-cycle cost analysis will dictate whether the agency chooses to replace the structure or rehabilitate it in some manner, as locals want, Demling said.

“That’s the primary reason we need this technical investigation: for the rehabilitation alternative as well as the replacement,” he said.

Construction could begin in 2021.

Much of Albion is opposed to any alteration of the bridge or the picturesque setting that forms the centerpiece of the community. The removal of eucalyptus trees, associated grading and use of helicopters to place drilling rigs are among their concerns. In addition, the work requires intermittent one-way traffic control across the 969-foot span.

Moreover, the bridge is one of two neighboring coastal bridges undergoing similar investigation. Caltrans is working under a separate, county-issued permit to conduct geotechnical drilling at the Salmon Creek Bridge, located less than a mile south of the Albion bridge.

The narrow steel and concrete structure is slated for replacement to bring it up to current standards for bike and pedestrian use, shoulders for damaged or disabled vehicles and resilience in earthquakes. In the short term, Caltrans is working to remediate lead waste in soils beneath the bridge related to repeated sandblasting and repainting of the steel beams, resulting in widespread contamination.

The combined disruption to the community and the landscape have galvanized many local residents amid increasing distrust of the state transportation agency.

They’ve cast their efforts to save the bridge and their community from disruption in David v. Goliath terms, though they have a key, moneyed ally in Los Angeles investment banker John Danhakl, who has funded experts and attorneys to aid the cause.

His land-use consultants have dogged Caltrans and its regulators, working with locals to interrupt work at Salmon Creek twice over the past week because of bureaucratic violations, including insufficient posting of one-way traffic control.

Danhakl, who owns a horse ranch in the region, says he’s driven by affection for the community, a desire to protect its interests and concern about government overreach. He says it’s clear to him a new bridge is unjustified, too costly, environmentally harmful and disruptive to the tourism on which the coastal economy depends.

Danhakl and other opponents believe the state agency has only one aim: to advance its case for a modern concrete structure in place of their beloved trestle bridge.

Mostly, they believe Caltrans is trying to mislead the public when the bridge is perfectly safe and sustainable if maintained as it has been — at a cost much lower than a replacement structure would be. An East Coast engineering firm deemed expert in timber construction issued a report in August stating the bridge was in “remarkably good condition” and “is not in immediate or near-term need of replacement.”

But Demling argues those individuals never contacted Caltrans staff. “Our bridge engineers are the experts,” he said.

Nor does the private firm bear responsibility or liability for the existing bridge, he said.

“I think these are nothing more than the community’s attempt to just stop Caltrans from actually conducting the geotechnical investigation,” Demling said. “They believe this is nothing but an attempt to force the replacement alternative, which it is not.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that independent engineers who examined the bridge did review Caltrans inspection reports.

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