Some of the oldest and most picturesque bridges in the Sacramento region are quietly fading away.
Fueled by federal grants, local cities and counties are on a bridge renewal kick, replacing dozens of older, mainly rural spans with bigger, sturdier bridges.
Sacramento County – home to numerous small bridges over rivers, creeks and Delta sloughs – revealed plans last week to spend $81 million in federal funds to replace 13 bridges and rehab another over the next five years.
Most are off the beaten track, like the little-used Michigan Bar Road bridge over the Cosumnes River in the east county hills beyond Rancho Murieta. But some, like the Elk Grove-Florin Road bridge over Elder Creek north of Elk Grove, are on major commuter routes. The two-lane Elder Creek bridge is so short and squat that motorists hardly notice they are crossing it, but it needs to be widened, as does the road, which becomes Watt Avenue further north.
Sacramento area officials say they are eagerly taking advantage of a recently amended state policy that frees up more money to build replacement spans for certain smaller bridges.
“We really have a backlog of deficient bridges,” county transportation official Dan Shoeman said. “This funding allows us to bring our system up to acceptable standards.”
The city of Sacramento has tapped federal funds for recent bridge replacements on three major north Sacramento avenues: Norwood, Main and West El Camino. It is laying the groundwork now for the biggest replacement project in the region: a $76 million Sacramento River span to take car traffic off the 100-year-old I Street Bridge, which has been deemed inadequate under modern standards for use by cars, bikes and pedestrians.
The I Street Bridge, an icon of the early industrial West, will remain in place in its original role as a freight and passenger train trestle.
In Placer County, the push for modern bridges led to the demise this year of a beloved span over Dry Creek near Roseville, the 73-year-old Cook Riolo Road bridge. The truss bridge was so narrow that the county turned it into a one-lane span as vehicles got wider. That forced cars in each direction to stop and wait until oncoming cars cleared. The bridge also was built low in the gully and sometimes flooded when the creek got high. The new bridge, nearing completion, is 10 feet higher, with wider lanes and bike and pedestrian areas, allowing children to walk and bike to the neighborhood school.
County officials thought about saving the old bridge by moving it to another spot to serve as a pedestrian span. “But, there was nowhere to put it that wouldn’t impede Dry Creek flow,” Placer County Public Works Director Ken Grehm said.
One catalyst for the ongoing efforts is fear, stemming from two high-profile bridge failures.
The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused a portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to collapse, leading to two decades of bridge strengthening projects in California, including construction of a new Bay Bridge eastern span. Locally, that earthquake prompted the $60 million strengthening project nearing conclusion on the Foresthill Bridge outside Auburn.
A 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse, causing multiple fatalities, sent transportation officials nationally scrambling to reassess the health of the nation’s bridges. Most of the bridges being replaced or fixed around Sacramento are on the federal highway agency’s long list of bridges deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Those categories typically refer to older bridges that are still safe to use but that do not meet modern standards.
Officials with the California Department of Transportation say the state has seen an upward creep in the number of bridges classified as structurally deficient in the last few years. Many of those, they say, are smaller, rural bridges that get less attention and fewer upgrades than bigger and busier urban bridges.
Many federal transportation funding programs require local jurisdictions to kick in at least some local funds. For bridge work, that locally required dollar amount is 11 percent. The state, which acts as administrator and pass-through entity for that money, recently amended its policies to allow certain small bridge repairs to qualify for 100-percent federal funding.
Five small bridges on Sacramento County’s replacement list qualify for that extra funding, called the “toll credit” program. Sacramento City officials hope their I Street Bridge can qualify for full federal and state funding even though it will be a larger urban bridge.
Officials say the Sacramento region has others reasons, besides available federal funds, for its bridge replacement push.
“Most (local counties) have bridges built in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s,” Placer County’s Grehm said. “They are getting old. We need to be spending money on bridges right now.”
Grehm and others say older bridges are not necessarily at risk of falling down, but many were built as small rural spans and now find themselves being asked to do jobs they were not designed for.
Perhaps the most unusual bridge replacement will happen in the southern reaches of Sacramento County, on the Twin Cities Road Bridge over Snodgrass Slough. The 82-year-old bridge there is a “swing” bridge, with a center section that can pivot open if tall boats come through.
County records indicate the bridge hasn’t had to open for a boat in more than a decade, but federal policies require that the new bridge allow tall boats to pass. To save money, the county will build the bridge with a manually removable center section, in case a tall boat ever needs to get through.
“We would have a crane company on standby we can call,” project manager Steve White said. “We’d close the road. The crane would pick the (moveable) span up and put it down on a beefier section of the bridge, then put it back” after the boat passes.
Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.