Back-Seat Driver

State to give Tower Bridge away?

Riders cross the Tower Bridge last month during the Tour of California.
Riders cross the Tower Bridge last month during the Tour of California. rpench@sacbee.com

Buried in the state budget this week is this item: The state appears willing to pay the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento a total of up to $15 million to take the Tower Bridge off its hands.

Tower Bridge over the Sacramento River is technically a highway, or at least the road on the bridge is. It’s State Route 275, the shortest in California. The bridge once served as the main entrance into the capital city. The state a decade ago relinquished the highway on both sides of the bridge to each city.

Caltrans now wants to relinquish the 80-year-old structure as well. The two cities have been interested, but reluctant because of the likely costs involved.

They’d have to shoulder annual operations and maintenance costs, including, for a while, the cost of a bridge tender in a control room in the rafters who lifts the road deck to allow tall ships through. The bridge’s “bumpers,” which protect it from errant boats and river debris, also may need rebuilding.

“It’s not a free puppy,” Jerry Way, Sacramento public works director, said last year when the discussions surfaced. “We don’t want to take on a substantial financial burden for either city.”

Caltrans has declined comment on its intentions. Sacramento officials say the state plans to do an assessment of the bridge’s condition. Once that is done, the state and locals might talk seriously about terms for relinquishment.

The budget bill does not specify how the cities could spend any state funds. That’s notable. The two cities have asked the state to chip in $10 million for another local project, a proposed $175 million streetcar line that would cross the Tower Bridge. It is possible that request can be wrapped into the bridge relinquishment negotiations.

The streetcar project is stalled at the moment. Downtown Sacramento voters earlier this month vetoed a proposed taxing district that would have helped finance the project. But city officials say they haven’t given up on the streetcar concept – they just need to find other revenue. Ten million dollars from the state would be a start.

The cities don’t actually need to own the bridge to build the streetcar over it. So, why would they consider taking the bridge off the state’s hands? The answer may simply be: If you can grab a great piece of real estate without breaking the bank, do it. Sacramento’s Way says, for one, “it’s beautiful and iconic.”

Owning the bridge would give the two cities, especially West Sacramento, more flexibility as they develop the Sacramento River waterfronts. The cities increasingly have been using the bridge, with state OK, as a public event space for things like professional bike races and an annual Farm to Fork dinner.

On one hand, taking the keys will lock the cities into annual expenses, forever. But they won’t have to ask the state anymore, “Uh, can we borrow the bridge?”

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