Our View: Foresthill Bridge retrofit will test county’s integrity

Our View
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As bridge construction goes, the $71 million estimate for painting and retrofitting the Foresthill Bridge seems tame by comparison. The new Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland is expected to run $6.3 billion. Bridges in Japan, Denmark and Sweden cost nearly as much. But $71 million? That would pay for a lot of teachers, fix miles of pothole-ridden roadways, or finance a regional sewage treatment solution for tens of thousands of residents in the foothills. According to Placer County traffic volume reports, the bridge accommodates about 7,500 one-way vehicle trips each year. By comparison, the overpass at Bell Road and Interstate 80 accommodates some 27,000 annual trips. So, if a one-way dollar toll were placed on the span to finance the work, it would take more than 27 years to pay it off — and that’s not even factoring inflation. But there will be no toll. Nearly 85 percent of the project cost is being borne by the federal government, with the rest coming from the state and county. As far as stimulus projects go, it will be a good one for the area as waves of workers stay in local motels and eat at local restaurants. But $71 million? Really? If the bridge is to remain, the work needs to be done. Built some 37 years ago to accommodate the high waters of the Auburn Dam, the bridge connects the Foresthill Divide with the rest of Placer County. Foresthill is the largest community on the divide with some 2,500 residents, inspiring some to call the iconic span a second “bridge to nowhere.” Iconic — and ironic. The dam fell out of local and federal favor because of earthquake concerns. The bridge, built to support the dam and some 2 million acre feet behind it, is now the subject of a seismic retrofit costing more than five times the original construction cost of $13 million. Potential contractors were treated to an up-close view of the bridge last week and briefed on the scope of work to be done, including the complex job of painting the span without letting original lead-based paint particles drop into the river below. Bids will be advertised in April, and the contract will be awarded in May. Construction could start in August and last until 2012. County engineers must scour the bids and award contractors who will deliver on time and under budget. It is important the work be done right, but in a time where every dollar counts, bids must be scrutinized and contractors held accountable. Ask any local or regional leaders on what they would do with $71 million in state and federal funding, and we doubt that preventive care on the Foresthill Bridge would be in their Top 10. Better schools, better roads, better water and sewage treatment … maybe a canyon fire break to prevent a catastrophic wildfire … that’s what you’d expect to see on their list. Contractors and county leaders, let’s see if we can bring down the cost of this project without jeopardizing the reliability of the repair. Integrity, in both the winning bids and the project work, will go hand-in-glove with restoring taxpayer faith in such large public works projects. $71 million? Is this really the best way to spend taxpayer dollars in Placer County today?