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View from Foresthill Bridge soon to be behind bars

Bidding process set to start on $70 million seismic retrofit, painting project
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The Foresthill Bridge near Auburn will gain a new paint-job and earthquake-proof structural stability at the end of a 2½-year-long, $70 million rehab project set to start this fall. But it will also lose its unobstructed view of the canyon below. Placer County plans that should go out to bid in the next several weeks call for what is now a 4-foot-high railing on the side of the 730-foot-high span to be raised to 8 feet. That will mean visitors to the popular tourist destination will see the view of the American River confluence in the 4½-inch-wide openings between the triangular, steel pickets that now rise 4 feet in the air and will above eye level in the future. Placer County Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery said she’s heard concerns about the height of the rail but feels it won’t be a problem for people wanting to see the canyon from the span. “It will stay what I would describe as an open structure,” Montgomery said. “Some people’s perceptions are that it’s going to be some monolithic, 8-foot-tall wall that no one could see through.” Built in 1973, the bridge is the third-highest bridge in the United States. It’s soon to become the fourth highest when the Hoover Dam bypass bridge is completed later this year but will remain the highest in California. “One of the things people love about the Foresthill Bridge is taking pictures off of it,” Montgomery said. “I’m pleased to see that the 8-foot-tall fence is not going to be a wall.” Eric Peach, a Protect American River Canyons board member, said that while people will be able to see through the railing when the rehab project ends in early 2013, there’s no question that it will obstruct the view to a certain degree. But the benefits in decreasing the chance of people impulsively jumping off the bridge or throwing debris off outweighs view concerns, he said. As well as the more than 50 people who have fallen to their deaths from the span since 1973, the canyon below is regularly strewn with objects ranging from shopping carts to tires to appliances. Live chickens have even been thrown off the bridge in years past. “It’s going to affect the view but it’s just necessary,” Peach said. Placer County’s Public Works Department is overseeing the project, which it considers its biggest ever. Sherri Berexa, public works associate civil engineer and project manager, told the county Board of Supervisors last week that the main part of the work will involve a seismic retrofit to strengthen cross-bracing, add more bolts and install larger steel support plates. The $23 million paint job has been rolled into the seismic project and involves removing the bridge’s original coat of paint. All the old paint will be taken off because it contains toxic lead, chromium and cadmium. None of the paint will be allowed to fall into the river canyon below, Berexa said. Bids on the project are expected to be opened in September with work starting soon after, with federal and state funding paying for all but $3 million of the project. There is still a chance that the railings could stay at 4 feet or be dropped to another height below 8 feet. Bob Blaser, assistant director of public works, said Caltrans uses a specially outfitted “snooper” truck to inspect the bridge and there’s still some question whether an increase in railing height would continue to allow them to use their specialized equipment.