Aging Bay Area Bridges Await Much-Needed Repairs

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Every year in California thousands of highway bridges are rated “structurally deficient” in the National Bridges Inventory, but the Pfeiffer Bridge on Highway 1 was not one of them.

The Big Sur bridge was rated good, not in need of any repair until a winter deluge this February left the structure broken and unusable. In a matter of weeks it had gone from good and safe to a danger to use.

Caltrans was forced to tear it down, leaving local residents stranded for weeks. Supplies had to be flown in by helicopter.

Many more bridges in the Bay Area and Northern California are on Caltrans list for structures that need retrofitting and repair.

“We are talking about thousands of structures,” said Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus. “We are putting more and more wear and tear on our highways and bridges. They need more and more work. A lot of them were built 50 or 60 years ago so they are coming to the end of their service life.”

Highway bridges are expected to last six decades, but some Bay Area bridges are close to 100 years old.

On Highway 12 in Sonoma County sits the Hooker Creek Bridge. Caltrans says the foundations of the bridge require “a high priority of replacement.” The substructure rating is critical and the Bridges Inventory notes “extensive scouring at the bridge foundations.”

The transit agency says the bridge is scheduled for replacement in 2020.

“The backlog (of bridges needing repair) is going to be there,” Haus said. “But we inspect the bridges regularly (to make sure they are safe).”

Haus says that is the case with the Irwin Creek Bridge on Highway 101 in San Rafael. While the bridge has cracks, if it wasn’t safe, the agency would shut it down.

The bridge was built in 1985, rehabbed in 1987 and rated structurally deficient during its most recent inspection in 2015.

While state transportation officials are faced with a difficult task, the dilemma gets mere more challenging for local cities and communities. Many of the bridges that need repair and seismic retrofitting are owned by cities. They must come up with the funds needed.

Joanie Simpson walks across the Leimert Bridge near Park Blvd. in Oakland every day.

“It’s cracked like somebody has broken it with an axe,” she said.

The bridge needs seismic retrofitting and below it is a 16-inch PG&E gas pipeline which the utility last inspected in 2013.

For the last 20 years, the bridge has been on Oakland’s list of bridges that need to be fixed or repaired. City managers tell KPIX 5 that it will take another 3 years before they can start working on the repair job because they have to go through planning and environmental reviews.

“It’s a question of priorities and affordability,” said Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “The money isn’t there.”

Funds are an issue even with the passage of Gov. Jerry Brown’s gas tax.

“Mostly what that is going to go to is the pothole repair,” Rentschler said. “That money won’t be sufficient enough to replace these big structures that are owned many times by local government.”

In Orinda, for example, a massive sinkhole that opened up during the winter storms is now taking away funds earmarked for bridge repair.

About 500 feet away from the sinkhole is the Miner Bridge that has been in the planning stages for a replacement for the last 6 years. But it’s $1.5 million pricetag means it will once again be delayed.

Rentschler said the aging infrastructure is forcing Bay Area cities to make difficult decisions.

“In this case it is really up to local governments responsibilities to make these very difficult decisions,” he said.

More from Juliette Goodrich
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