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.