Debate stirs over two-year on-ramp closure
on December 1, 2011
The California Department of Transportation is planning a project that would close an I-580 on-ramp near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge for at least two years, forcing residents to enter westbound and cross the bridge into Marin County.
The construction, which is slated to start in the spring, involves repairing concrete bridge decks on Western Drive, in a spot that would cut off eastern access to the interstate. The Western Drive/Point Molate freeway interchange is just feet from the entrance to the bridge, and without the east entrance, travelers will essentially have to make a U-turn on the 5.5-mile-long bridge in order to travel east.
The plan is striking a chord with Councilmember Tom Butt, who is concerned about the project’s impact on residents and the environment, and is miffed he didn’t hear about the project until a few weeks ago.
“Considering the number of people affected by this and the huge potential impact of it, [Caltrans] should have contacted anybody that had anything to do with it,” said Butt, who is president of the board for the nearby East Brother Light Station, which keeps its boat at the Pt. San Pablo Yacht Harbor. “They should have contacted all of the people who use Western Drive.”
Butt has compiled a list of potential impacts of the project on his e-forum. He estimates the project will result in more than 580,000 excess miles driven and more than 570,000 pounds of extra greenhouse gas emissions. He also points to businesses that may be affected—including the harbor, the light station, Chevron and its Rod & Gun Club, and a major recycling company. He also said the closure would eliminate access for Point Molate cleanup crews.
Caltrans Project Manager Cheryl Nevares did not respond to requests for comment, but a copy of a flier she provided to Pt. San Pablo Yacht Harbor said the construction involves replacing concrete bridge decks at Scofield Avenue and Western Drive, and is expected to last from spring 2012 through summer or fall 2014. The flier also confirms that drivers will be detoured across the bridge, and notes that a bicycle shuttle will be available for those needing to travel east to west, and vice versa.
Harbor owner Eric Johnson agrees the closure will be inconvenient, but he said he and his wife have known about the project since they talked to a Caltrans engineer several years ago. They were also visited more than once by Caltrans employees in the last few months, when Caltrans physically “laid the plans out,” Johnson said.
“Because there’s a gasoline tank on that hill there, and there’s a bunch of Chevron oil pipes underneath the bridge, there’s just no way for us to get across it while they’re tearing it apart,” Johnson said, adding that the bridge has been in disrepair for a while.
Johnson was also told that Caltrans would provide bridge-toll-charge passes to the harbor’s users. When he handed out Nevares’ fliers, some expressed displeasure while others expressed hope that the project would bring jobs, he said.
Butt got a copy of the flier and has since “sounded the alarm,” he said. Aside from his delayed notice, his concerns center on the way Caltrans conducted its California Environmental Quality Act review, in which it claimed an exemption based on the premise that the project is a maintenance job that will have minimal impact on the environment.
“What they did is they did the lowest possible level of CEQA review,” Butt said by phone, adding that he thinks the project is “major.”
Chevron spokesperson Melissa Ritchie said Chevron, which sits on adjacent property, was told about the project, but didn’t learn details until recently. She said Chevron doesn’t except the project to interrupt its operations, but Chevron is looking into the impact it may have on Rod & Gun Club users.
After the reaction from Butt, concerns also surfaced from Bay Trail advocates, who for years have not been able to reach an agreement with Caltrans on a way to connect Point Molate and the rest of the Pt. San Pablo Bay peninsula.
Bruce Bayaert, president of the Trails for Richmond Action Committee, said he and the committee have been working with the city for more than decade to connect the trail there, but can’t afford to do the special report required to get the OK to build on Caltrans land.
“[Caltrans] will not participate in the project-study report unless the city of Richmond pays for Caltrans’ time to do so,” Bayeart said. “That is estimated to cost $150,000 to $200,000, which the city doesn’t have.”
Bayeart pointed to the $24.2 million investment Caltrans has made in the bridge-repair project, a sum confirmed by Nevares’ flier. (The project will be funded by the 2010 State Highway Operation and Protection Program.)
“The impact on motorists and bicyclists of the two-year construction project far exceed the cost of Caltrans’ participation in preparing the project-study report,” Bayeart said. “It would make a lot of sense for Caltrans to mitigate the disruption caused by this project by agreeing to participate [in connecting the trail] with no charge to the city in preparing the report.”
Eric Johnson, the harbor owner, said he does not know why it took so long for word about the maintenance project to get around to the city, but regardless, the bridge needs repair.
“If the city gets involved and starts making demands and claims, it’s just going to make the job more expensive, and it’s going to take more time,” he said. “It is what it is. Bridge is broken; gotta fix it.”
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