Foresthill Bridge renovation celebrated

Foresthill Bridge is ready for the next 40 years.

The iconic span, east of Auburn and towering 730 feet above the American River, has received a face-lift, including a fresh coat of green paint, 220,000 bolts and more than 2.3 million pounds of new steel, part of a seismic retrofit that began in 2011.

On Wednesday, county officials, construction workers and local residents gathered to mark the milestone and rededicate the bridge, originally built in 1973.

“It’s a remarkable achievement,” said David Boesch, Placer County’s executive officer, standing steps away from the tallest span in California and fourth-tallest in the nation.

For three years, hundreds of contractors, iron workers and engineers have spent countless hours laying new steel beams and installing bolts to ensure the bridge could withstand a magnitude 6.5 earthquake. The $74 million retrofit and repainting project was funded mostly by the federal government, with the state and county chipping in roughly $7 million.

Without the retrofits, the bridge had the potential to collapse during a sizable earthquake, said Ken Grehm, public works director for the county. Placer officials took the lead on the project, enlisting multiple contractors and consultants for the work. Officials noted that the project was completed on budget and on time.

The work is expected to last for another four decades, and the project has earned the distinction of being the largest public works venture ever undertaken by Placer County.

“The repainting was half the job,” said Grehm, explaining the process of protecting the environment during construction. “After we sandblasted the old lead paint, we had to collect it in a tent and pump it up to containers.”

At the rededication ceremony, Don Anderson, the resident engineer for the original construction, called Foresthill Bridge “my love in the sky” and recounted how it was built.

“Those piers were big enough you could put a Greyhound bus on top,” Anderson, 79, told a laughing crowd.

The Foresthill Bridge was born from a proposal to build the Auburn Dam, which would have flooded the canyon below. The resulting reservoir would have covered roads leading to Foresthill, so the tall span would have been necessary to maintain access. The dam, however, was never built.

Forty-one years later, the two concrete piers are still in terrific shape, officials said. But crews this time added a “shear key” on top of each concrete pillar, serving as a metal clamp to keep the bridge in place, said Matt Randall, a senior engineer with the county.

To celebrate, the catwalk was open for public tours on Wednesday. From the narrow platform beneath the road typically used for maintenance, visitors were treated to breathtaking views of the canyon and surrounding mountains. The occasional rumble from cars above could be heard, causing a gentle vibration of the steel structure.

Boesch said the bridge will be an asset for generations to come, noting that it was the perfect landmark to market the county for tourism. The bridge has starred in several Hollywood movies, but it also is infamous for suicides and thrill-jumpers using bungee cords or parachutes.