Santa Rosa upbeat on finding millions of dollars for long-planned footbridge

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Santa Rosa has yet to secure the millions of dollars needed to build a long-planned bridge for cyclists and pedestrians to cross Highway 101, but that’s not stopping city officials and consultants from pressing ahead with design and location plans for a span they hope to start building in less than two years.

The bridge is touted by the city and its supporters as a necessary connector that will facilitate safer nonautomotive access over the freeway near its high-traffic interchanges at College Avenue and Steele Lane. They serve Coddingtown Mall, the nearby Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit station, Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa High School and nearby neighborhoods.

Beyond figuring out how to drum up the estimated $11 million to $13 million needed to build the crossing, Santa Rosa will need to determine whether they want a light, airy design that preserves views for highway motorists — or a more imposing and unique bridge that becomes a new city landmark.

“What’s really great is that this is an amazing opportunity to right some of the planning wrongs” of the past, Adam Sharron, a landscape architect and member of the city’s Design Review Board, said at Thursday’s meeting. Cost permitting, he added, the city’s new crossing could be a statement piece “that is made to be a design, rather than utilitarian bridge.”

The city has a lot of work ahead before it can realize that vision. Initial designs conceived by city staff and consultants called for a bridge that would blend into highway surroundings and preserve far-reaching views for northbound drivers. The City Council is not expected to consider the project until early 2020, said Jason Nutt, the city’s director of transportation and public works.

The bridge has been in the works for more than a decade, and city documents show work slated to begin in January 2021 and finish in July 2022. The city has been able to find money to study potential bridge designs, but “we don’t have funding secured for construction,” Christopher Catbagan, a city engineer, said Thursday.

Nutt said the city was optimistic about its ability to secure grant funding for up to 80 percent of the construction cost and will start applying for funding this summer. “We think this is an excellent project that will score very well in these grant programs,” he said. The remainder of the construction cost would come from traditional road-building funds such as gas tax revenue.

The bridge’s location and design will be primary factors affecting its price tag. Nutt, who joined the city in 2005, said the same concerns were present in discussions of the project back then.

The city’s bridge team is focused on two possible sites: Stretching over the highway between Elliott and Edwards avenues, or between Bear Cub Way and Range Avenue further south. Most members of the public who weighed in on the project Thursday favored the northern alignment, which is closer to the mall and the junior college.

The city’s bridge team also has studied numerous designs, focusing on see-through spans with cables connecting the bridge deck to supporting arches or columns, both of which would preserve a northbound view of the hilly Shiloh Ranch Regional Park in Windsor.

Construction impacts to highway traffic would be temporary but significant, officials said. An open-arch bridge would require the 101 to be totally closed for several hours, while a column-supported span could be built with only incremental partial closures, said Natalina Bernardi, a civil engineer with BKF, a Bay Area engineering firm.

On top of the need for funding and design agreement, the city’s bridge team has to balance numerous restrictions on the span’s dimensions and anchor points, Bernardi said. For instance, the bridge deck has to be kept relatively shallow — meaning the city can’t pursue a cheaper concrete design that inherently requires a deeper base. And, Caltrans has expressed its preference that the bridge doesn’t include a center column between the northbound and southbound lanes, she said.

Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, described herself as “agnostic” about the bridge’s structural design. She has focused her advocacy on persuading city staffers that the northern connection between Elliott and Edwards would best suit cyclists.

Other members of the public and Design Review Board called for the crossing to be a landmark.

“Go bold and go visionary in the design,” said Jenny Bard, a member of the Bicycle Coalition who lives near the junior college. “This, we hope, really will put Santa Rosa on the map.”

And board member and architect Drew Weigl called for the city to “push the envelope” by approving a “progressive, modern statement.”

“I think going a direction with a modern bridge that is a departure from traditionalism would be a way to set Santa Rosa apart in terms of this particular element,” Weigl said. “And if the city was so inclined to go that way, the design of the bridge itself could make that statement without signage or artwork, because the bridge itself is the artwork.”

Nutt noted that previous feedback to city staffers and consultants had asked planners to craft a design that both stood out as a signature piece and also blended into the nearby area.

Thursday’s hearing was unusual because such public works projects aren’t typically subject to zoning rules or Design Review Board scrutiny. As a result, the hearing was termed a “courtesy review” by senior city planner Bill Rose, who left open the possibility that the project would return before the board in the future.

“It’s a unique project,” Rose said. “We don’t get bicycle and pedestrian bridges very often.”

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

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