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An Annotated History of the New Noyo Bridge and Scenic Railing Design

Summer, 1998: Caltrans reveals its proposed replacement for the Noyo Bridge to the public. The existing Noyo Bridge is a two-lane, steel girder bridge on Highway 1. It crosses the entrance to Noyo Harbor at the southern end of Fort Bragg, Mendocino County. Its narrow width and open railing design provide motorists with spectacular views of  the Noyo Harbor, the harbor entrance, and  surrounding coastal bluffs.
Caltrans is proposing to replace the two-lane, historic bridge across scenic Noyo Harbor with a  concrete box-girder bridge that is completely out of scale with Noyo Harbor and every other bridge on scenic Highway 1.   Although described as a "four-lane bridge", it has not just four traffic lanes and two sidewalks, but an unused 12’ center median and two eight foot shoulders. The proposed bridge is 87 feet wide, wider than the Golden Gate Bridge, almost completely filling its right of way and coming within 10 feet of a restaurant and motel on the seaward side of the bridge.

The wide shoulders and  sidewalk would put motorists far away from the edge of the bridge, preventing views down into the harbor. Views would further be obscured by a solid concrete railing.

August, 1998: an alert member of the public writes a letter published in the Fort Bragg Advocate News letting people know that the new design has a solid concrete “rail,” completely obscuring views of the harbor and Noyo River entrance. I write a letter to Caltrans, urging them to design a bridge that "will be a joy to behold," and offering a suggestion for narrowing the bridge and improving the views.

September, 1998: in response to public outcry over the proposed bridge design, Caltrans has a public display of the design and collects 77 public comments, most of them highly critical. I find a photo simulating the view from the new bridge, and write a letter to the local paper urging people to "just say no" to Caltrans until they provide a bridge that preserves coastal views.

Type 80 SW “See-Through” Rail Proposed by Caltrans

October, 1998: In response to public criticism, Caltrans proposes to add a superficial arch and embossed columns to improve the appearance from the harbor. It also proposes to substitute a new, “see-through” rail for the solid concrete one. I examined the design and found that the new rail offered little improvement in visibility.  I write in the local papers about the failure of the new rail to solve the view problem. The Caltrans project director publishes a defense of the proposed bridge.

December, 1998: Caltrans comes to the Fort Bragg Planning Commission for project approval. I thoroughly research the impact of the proposed railing on views from the bridge into Noyo Harbor. I take photos and distance measurements, and get out my trigonometry formulas. I create simulated views and include them in prepared testimony to the Commission.  I show that the proposed railing will almost completely block views into Noyo Harbor.

The planning commission rejects the Caltrans bridge permit application by a vote of 4 to 1, citing the need to consider alternatives that would be architecturally more pleasing, fit more harmoniously with the setting, and preserve existing views. I am elated that Caltrans will need to go back to the drawing board; but I am still a babe in the woods when it comes to bureaucratic maneuvering.

January, 1999: Caltrans District Director Rick Knapp let it be known that Fort Bragg risked cancellation of the $20+ million bridge project if the Caltrans plan was not approved as presented.  A well-coordinated campaign is launched by the old-guard politicos of Fort Bragg, who have recently lost control of the City Council to new reformers. At a standing-room only City Council meeting, packed with pro-Caltrans supporters, Director Knapp stresses that any delays could cause loss of funding for the bridge. I am one of only a few people who are willing to stand up and argue against permit approval. The antagonism toward me is palpable. An intimidated City Council unanimously overturns the Planning Commission and approves the Caltrans permit.

With my assistance,  Roanne Withers , a long-time community activist, appeals the permit to California Coastal Commission on behalf of the Fort Bragg Sierra Club.

March, 1999:   The Coastal Commission hears Caltrans permit request in Monterey. Naive as I am, I am appalled to find that I will have only 2 minutes, the standard time allowed, to address the Commission. I have sent prepared testimony in advance and want to make the major points to the Commission. Fortunately, Mark Massara, the lawyer who represents the Sierra Club at all Coastal Commission meetings, arrives and tells me he will give me 10 of his 15 minutes.

Caltrans emphasizes that it needs immediate approval in order to start work on the bridge this year.  An immediate start is required, Caltrans argues, because the seismic risks of the present bridge are unacceptable. There is no time to design a narrower bridge. Caltrans states that no alternative railings meet current safety standards and that it would take years to design and approve a new railing.

In my oral testimony, I emphasize the unwillingness of Caltrans to consider alternative designs that would could meet all traffic requirements, fit into the scale of the setting, and preserve coastal views. I also stress that Caltrans used the threat of loss of funding for the bridge to get the Fort City Council to approve the project. I urge the Commissioners not to let Caltrans use its own rules and regulations to ignore the requirements of the Coastal Act.

The Coastal Commission approves the Caltrans permit application by a vote of 5 to 4.

A number of Commissioners express regret at having to vote for the Caltrans design, but state they can not do otherwise given Caltrans declaration of urgency.  It imposes a $1 million mitigation fee for the impact of the bridge on scenic coastal views. The money is to go to Fort Bragg to be used to purchase headland property near the bridge to provide the public with access and views. The Commission also asks Caltrans to begin work now on an alternative railing design so that it will not be placed in a similar position by Caltrans in the future.

April, 1999: Caltrans objected strenuously to the mitigation fee and deliberated internally on whether or not to accept it. On April 16, 1999, Caltrans announced that it had accepted the $1 million mitigation fee and would proceed with the project.

At the same time, it announces that, "Due to delays resulting from the permitting process, it is not likely that significant work will be accomplished this year." In fact, given that bids would not be advertised until September, work could not begin until June 2000. Thus, after asserting that seismic safety required an immediate start of construction, thereby forcing the Coastal Commission to approve its design in March, one month later, Caltrans for its own reasons quietly postponed the start of construction until the following year.

May, 1999: I request the Coastal Commission to revoke Caltrans permit for the Noyo Bridge.  The main ground for revocation was my discovery that a number of other states had designed railing with far better visibility than the proposed Caltrans railing.  These railings had passed current safety crash tests and had been accepted for use on the National Highway System – the standard that Caltrans had earlier stated was the one it used to judge the acceptability of railings for use in California.  I argue that it is not credible that Caltrans was ignorant of railings when it made contrary statements at the permit hearing.

Peter Douglas, the Executive Director of the Coastal Commission, accepts my request for revocation. In retrospect, this is very surprising, because I come to learn that Mr. Douglas and Caltrans have a close working relationship. His action indicates acceptance of the possibility that Caltrans acted improperly before the Commission. It also prohibits all construction activities on the bridge until the Commission hears the revocation request.

Although the halt in construction is not important, because internal delays in Caltrans have postponed the earliest start of the bridge construction to June of 2000, Caltrans reacts with outrage at Mr. Douglas's action..

I am told by a Coastal Commission staffer that Tony Anziano, a Caltrans lawyer and chief liaison to the Commission, immediately called Mr. Douglas, came to his office and read him the riot act. According to my staff contact, at the end of this meeting, before ever receiving any substantive response to my allegations from Caltrans, Mr. Douglas called in his staff to discuss how to handle the case.

In the event, the staff report on my revocation request makes negative findings on every one of my contentions. Because of its truly overwhelming work load, the Commission relies heavily upon staff recommendations. The probability of success before the Commission seems low, but I'm determined to make the strongest possible case.

Wyoming Rail Near Yellowstone
National Park

June, 1999: The biggest hurdle to getting the revocation is to show that Caltrans "intentionally" withheld information or provided erroneous information. Although I make a strong circumstantial case that Caltrans had in its possession important information it withheld, I do not have any hard evidence, such as a memo, that shows it was intentionally withheld.

At the hearing on the revocation request, Caltrans argues that although alternative designs that met federal standards were available, none of these alternatives had been “approved” by Caltrans for use in California.  Caltrans states that it has a policy against metal railings because they require more maintenance than concrete railings.  To approve the alternative railings would require a change in Caltrans policy.  Such a change in policy would take some unstated time.  Given the urgency of replacing the Noyo Bridge, time was not available to change the policy; therefore the alternative railings were not feasible. 

Caltrans admits that it knew of the existence of the Wyoming Rail, the alternative rail I favor, at the time of the earlier permit hearing, but says that it was not considered for the Noyo Bridge because it “was not consistent with the Department’s policy regarding the use [of only] concrete barrier rails.”

Caltrans frames the revocation as a vote on the integrity of Rick Knapp, the long-time Caltrans District Manager in Mendocino County. The Commissioner from his city (Eureka) tells of her long association with Mr. Knapp and strongly affirms her belief in his honesty. 

The Commission rejects the revocation request, with only one Commissioner voting in favor of revocation.

October, 1999: I hear that Coastal Commission staff has scheduled a workshop on bridge railing alternatives that is to be given solely by Caltrans. I protest vehemently and ask to be included and to give alternative information. I addressed this to the Commissioners in general. I learn later than these general communications never rise to the level of Commission awareness.

November-December, 1999: I follow up with Commission staff on my offer to be involved in the workshop. I find that no notice was taken, and workshop is fast approaching. I create a history of railing development in California (The Cal-transmogrification of Scenic Bridge Railings (PDF)) and send it to the staff for distribution to the Commissioner as background for the Caltrans railing workshop.

Caltrans gives a Bridge Rail Workshop to the Coastal Commission, with no public members allowed to attend.  At this meeting, it promises the Commission that it will evaluate steel railings approved in other states for use in California.  It shows the Commission five steel railings developed by other states that have passed current crash tests.

Caltrans shows the Commission six modified railing designs that meet its "standards." My fears were well founded. All of the modified designs are ugly and visually opaque. Caltrans has ignored the possibility of the two-rail system that places the traffic barrier on the inside of the sidewalk and pedestrian railing on the outside. They have combined traffic barrier and pedestrian railing into one, creating aesthetically repelling designs.

Caltrans introduces for the first time in public discussion a new, additional set of criteria for judging the acceptability of railing, the “AASHTO LRFD standards.”  Caltrans cites these standards as justification for modifying the design of the Wyoming Rail to destroy its aesthetic appeal and visual transparency.  Caltrans continues its transmogrification of bridge railings.

At the workshop, the Commission establishes a "Bridge Railing Subcommittee," consisting of Commissioners Chris Desser and Shirley Detloff.

February, 2000: Caltrans writes to the Coastal Commission and promises to begin placing examples of the three alternative railings preferred by the Commission on bridges then under construction in scenic areas “as early as next month.”  None of the alternative planned for construction come anywhere close to providing the visual transparency of a true Wyoming Rail
April, 2000:
I write to the Commission about my findings on the AASHTO LRFD Standards.  I copied Caltrans on my correspondence with the Wyoming Highway Department on this subject.  In brief, I found that the Wyoming Rails[i] meet the AASHTO Standards. [After a formal request from the Commission, the Wyoming Highway Department officially confirmed this to be correct (October 9, 2000).] 

Significantly, the “AASHTO Standards” raised by Caltrans appear to be outdated. They cite data from a previous generation of crash tests (Report 230).  Moreover, they appear on their face to be guides for designing bridge rails that would successfully pass the cited crash tests.  What these standards attempt to guard against is snagging of vehicles by the rail during a crash, but a rail cannot pass a crash test if it snags a test vehicle.  For rails that have passed crash tests, the AASHTO LRFD Standards are irrelevant.  

Caltrans Modification of Wyoming Rail

July, 2000: Information has been circulating around Fort Bragg for some time that the Noyo Bridge project is undergoing further delays.  When preparing its bridge design, Caltrans failed to test the soil conditions where the bridge piers were to be built.  When the contractor began to drill for the piers, the geology was not as assumed and the bridge as designed could not be built.  Further, the contractor told Caltrans that the assumption made in the permit, that materials would be barged from the north to the south shore of the Noyo, was infeasible.  The contractor wanted to build a road down the south side of the Noyo to truck in materials.  The upshot of these developments is that bridge construction cannot start before June of 2001, two years later than the “urgent” start date held up by Caltrans before the Coastal Commission.

With the help of Roanne Withers of Fort Bragg, I come to the July 14 Commission meeting well prepared and with the staff fully informed of the construction delay. Staff tells the Commission of the new delays. The Commissioners expresses dismay that Caltrans has once again delayed the bridge, after using the urgency of construction to shut off Commission consideration of alternatives that could better preserve the scenic values of Noyo Harbor.

The Commissioners are extremely receptive to my requests, which I list in a letter and explain at the meeting. I tell them that The Wyoming Highway Department has confirmed that the Wyoming rail already meets the AASHTO standards cited by Caltrans to modify the rail design. I request the Commission to ask Caltrans for their analysis supporting the modification. I also ask them to request the Wyoming Highway Department for an official confirmation that its railing meets AASHTO standards, because it seems evident that political sensitivity to Caltrans has so far prevented them from putting this conclusion in writing. I further ask the Commission to get Caltrans to provide them with an example of a two-rail system and to request a metal railing for the Noyo Bridge.

The Commission directs the staff to fulfill my requests. Additionally, the Commission decides to write to the heads of Caltrans and the Transportation Commission requesting their cooperation in accelerating development of a scenic railing and the use of a better railing on the Noyo Bridge.

In the month following the meeting, similar letters were sent from the Chair of the Commission to the Director of Caltrans and the Chairman of the Transportation CommissionThe Commission staff sent a letter to the head of the Wyoming Department of Transportation as requested. It also sent a letter to Caltrans engineering staff asking them to provide the information I'd requested in my letter of July 14.

The major positive results of the July Commission meeting occurred because of a confluence of events, ongoing efforts, and preparation. The key factor was the major delay in construction of the Noyo Bridge. This angered the Commission and created an opportunity to provide them with suggested actions to express this anger in a constructive manner. The opportunity could be exploited so successfully only because of the accumulation of information and evidence acquired over a long prior period. This base of information was ready and waiting for the opportunity. Also, by this time I was familiar to the Commission and staff and known to be a serious, reliable witness. Perseverance and patience, waiting for the right opportunity, seem to be keys to success for those attempting to move public policy.

September, 2000:  Caltrans appears before the Commission and reiterates its plan of February to build three alternative rails on scenic bridges under construction, with an estimated completion date of December 2000.  The planned rails are the ones first put forth by Caltrans in December 1999, including the inappropriately termed “Modified Wyoming Rail.” 

Very importantly, Caltrans formally agreed to put on the Noyo Bridge a railing acceptable to the Coastal Commission Railing Subcommittee. As this subcommittee  includes Chris Desser, the most passionate critic of the proposed Noyo Bridge, we are fairly well assured of a good railing -- if Caltrans can be persuaded to approve one.

Caltrans does not respond to the Commission’s questions contained in its letter of August 14, 2000, including the request to provide an analysis that supports the modification of the Wyoming Rail.   

I show the Commission a picture of an actual Wyoming Rail installed near Yellowstone Park and compare it to the Caltrans travesty of a Wyoming Rail [see photos above].  A Caltrans engineer gets up and states, incorrectly, that the Wyoming Rail pictured does not meet current safety standards and has not been accepted for the Federal Highway System. I say that he is incorrect.   After the meeting, I send  to the Commission  a letter citing FHA acceptance of the pictured rail for use on the Federal Highway System.

The Bridge Railing Subcommittee (Commissioners Desser and Dettloff) schedules meeting on October 10, 2000 with Caltrans.  I am not invited to attend this meeting.

The week after the meeting, I contact Steve Scholl of the Commission staff to follow up on letters sent out in August at Commission request. I reiterate the importance of getting Caltrans to accept the unmodified Wyoming rail or provide detailed justification for its modification. In his reply, Mr. Scholl details plans for the October railing subcommittee meeting and promises to get me copies of material that Caltrans prepares for the meeting. He says he will pass along the request for followup on the letters to the subcommittee at the October meeting.

A recent Coastal Commission member, John Woolley of Eureka, contacts me and asks me to provide him information that he can use to enlist the support of state Senator Wes Chesbro, who represents Humboldt, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties. I send Commissioner Woolley a package with a letter and documents for Senator Chesbro and a separate letter to him, urging him to support efforts to get Caltrans to redesign the bridge.

October, 2000 Peter Douglas, Executive Director of the Coastal Commission takes over responsibility for the Bridge Railing Subcommittee. This is good news. Mr. Douglas has been with the Commission "forever". He is knowledgeable and highly respected within and without of the Commission. His assuming staff responsibility indicates that bridge railings have risen in priority within the Commission.

I write to Mr. Douglas in early October, offering to assist him with bridge railing and urge him to followup the August 14 letter to Caltrans. I include in the letter a comparison of alternative bridge railings for him to present to the bridge railing subcommittee, which will meet with Caltrans at the Commission's October meeting.

I also email subcommittee member Chris Desser. I assure her that I'm on solid ground in asserting that the Wyoming railing meets all safety criteria, including the AASHTO standards. I raise a theme that I will return to and refine as Caltrans continues to assert that the Wyoming rail doesn't meet its standards: Caltrans invocation of AASHTO "standards" is another example of Caltrans's assertion of erroneous "facts" to buttress their positions.

Sleeter Dover, the Director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation mails a response to Chairman Wan, dated October 9, 2000. He confirms that the Wyoming rail meets the AASHTO LRFD standards and has met the crash test standards for a Test Level 4 (TL-4). He includes the documentation of the Wyoming Rail successful crash tests. I don't receive my copy of the letter until October 24.

The head of Caltrans responds to Chairman's Wan's letter of August 10 in a letter dated October 6, but not received by the Commission until October 20, 2000. The letter repeats the standard assurance that Caltrans is "committed to exploring all viable options to satisfy the Coastal Commission's need for a "see-through barrier rail" for use on designated scenic routes." Although nothing new is added, the letter has raised the profile of the railing development project within Caltrans. I don't receive my copy of the letter until October 27.

On October 24, I receive my copy of the letter from Mr. Dover of the Wyoming DOT. I immediately email the members of the bridge railing subcommittee. I stress that, "The letter authoritatively refutes Caltrans contention that the Wyoming Rail did not meet the LRFD standards.  The Wyoming Rail is completely acceptable as a traffic barrier without modification." I tell the subcommittee that now the Commission can move forward to get Caltrans to design a family of railings (single rail, two-rail, and pedestrian rail) based on the Wyoming rail. I feel that the time of controversy and confrontation with Caltrans has now ended.

I receive a return email from the Commission staff director, Peter Douglas. He lauds my role, but his report on Caltrans plans for a presentation to the Commission in December raises prickles of concern on the back of my neck. No mention is made of the Wyoming rail.

On October 27, I receive my copy of the letter from Caltrans director, Jeff Morales, to Sara Wan. The concerns raised by Mr. Douglas's email escalate. I immediately email Peter Douglas, the railing subcommittee, and Sara Wan:

" I want to emphasize to you that to my knowledge Caltrans has still not agreed to construct railings based on un-modified Wyoming Rails.  As you now know, the Wyoming Transportation Department has now confirmed that its rail meets all current design and safety standards. The railings Caltrans proposes to build are all almost indistinguishably ugly and opaque.  Until Caltrans agrees to present alternatives based on un-modified Wyoming Rails,  the Commission is being denied the opportunity to choose the obviously best railing."

I urge Mr. Douglas to again request a response to Steve Scholl's letter of August 14, 2000, asking Caltrans to provide detailed justification for its modification of the Wyoming rail. I want this information so that I can make a detailed rebuttal. All indications are that Caltrans is continuing to ignore the Wyoming rail in favor of its very inferior designs. I want to be able to show the Commission that Caltrans has no safety grounds for its position.

November, 2000: Having learned from my previous experiences, I begin preparations for the December Commission in November. I prepare a brief, largely pictorial presentation of alternative railing designs to drive home the superiority of the Wyoming rail in a two-rail system. By now, I understand that the Commissioners are overwhelmed by information and need to be educated in short, easily absorbed bits. Pictures and graphics are the best when they can do the job. 

December, 2000: The Commission will meet in the middle of December. A week before, I send my railing presentation, together with a cover letter, to Commission Chair Sara Wan, the railing subcommittee, and staff. The letter concludes: "The Commission should move quickly to have the Wyoming Rail adopted as the primary scenic railing in California." I am feeling confident that all safety objections to the Wyoming rail have now been overcome. All that remains is for the Commission to direct Caltrans to adopt the Wyoming rail.

I email to subcommittee members asking them to request that I be given five minutes before the Commission instead of the standard maximum of three. I am learning to ask for a little, rather than a lot. They agree to my request and Wednesday, December 13 is set for my appearance. I plan to present the pictorial argument to the Commissioners and hope that they will move to request Caltrans to adopt the Wyoming rail.

I arrive early on Wednesday, and Peter Douglas gives me a letter from Caltrans received via fax only the day before, December 12, the first day of this month's Commission meeting. The letter, is from John Allison, Director of the Caltrans Engineering Services Center. It purports to be a response to the Commission's August request for an analysis supporting the department's conclusion that the Wyoming rail fails to meet the LRFD standards. In fact, this is obviously the department's counter to the refutation of that conclusion by the director of the Wyoming transportation department. Without ever mentioning Caltrans' previous reason ("falls in the "not recommended" range) for rejecting the Wyoming rail, Mr. Allison blithely substitutes a new reason: "... the rail score was not in the "preferred zone" of the graph.

To say I'm upset and outraged does not do justice to the intensity my feelings. Just when I think I have snuffed out Caltrans' ability to refuse the Wyoming rail, they come up with yet another "engineering safety" reason. And, they send it to the Commission on the day of the meeting (even though it is dated 5 days earlier). I feel, rightly or wrongly, that this was done deliberately, to prevent me from responding to the Commissioners in advance of the meeting.

I go forward with my presentation to the Commission, but I no longer have the compelling argument I had prior to Caltrans' new "safety standard." I do let the Commissioners know that further construction delays may be in prospect, because Caltrans has once again filed for an amendment to its permit for the bridge. I don't feel I can ask the Commission to request the Wyoming rail now, given the new uncertainty that Caltrans has created.

While the Commission is still in session, I go to Kinkos and create an immediate response to Allison's letter. I hand deliver it to the subcommittee members, Chris Desser and Shirley Detloff, and Peter Douglas.  The main focus of the letter is on Caltrans arbitrary setting of "safety standards:"

"The assertion of yet a new safety standard by Caltrans is a continuation of a tactic that Caltrans has repeatedly used to thwart the Commission’s desire to have Caltrans make its projects conform to the Coastal Act’s protection of scenic resources. This tactic is to assert its authority to arbitrarily set “safety standards” and “engineering considerations” at whatever level required to thwart the Commission."

I document Caltrans's repeated shifting of "safety standards" over time and argue:

There will be no end of Caltrans’s escalation of “standards” until and unless the Commission tells Caltrans that it cannot override the Coastal Act by setting these standards to arbitrarily high levels, and raising them at its whim whenever a previously cited standard does not achieve its bureaucratic desires.

I lobby with Chris Desser to be allowed to attend the meeting of Caltrans with the railing subcommittee tomorrow, Friday. She gets the other member, Shirley Detloff, to agree.

I am fired up to confront Caltrans. I prepare a list of questions that look like a legal cross examination. I want to pin Caltrans to the mat and get them to admit that there is no recognized safety basis for its rejection of the Wyoming rail. In retrospect, this was not the right approach or frame of mind. I was just too agitated to be the most effective.

Three Caltrans engineers attended the subcommittee meeting: Stefan Galvez, Naheed Abdin, and Rick Land. The last is Head of the Structure Design Department of the Engineering Service Center, the group responsible for the railing designs. The meeting descends into an antagonistic sparring between Caltrans and me. I keep pushing them to provide objective analysis that supports their position. At one point, all three say in a parody of a Greek chorus: "It is our engineering judgment." They say it like it trumps everything else -- and for now it seems to do just that.

My frustration emerges in an email I sent the next day to the Sierra Club lawyer, Mark Massara.

In a calmer state of mind, I emailed Commissioners and staff on the day after the meeting. I began with an apology, explained my frustration, and attempted to enroll them in helping raise the railing issue to a higher level within Caltrans:

What I hope you all understand is that the choice of scenic railing no longer depends on any technical information. ...

Caltrans objections to the approving the Wyoming Rail have now been shown to be political in nature. Caltrans now has every possible technical justification needed to approve the Wyoming Rail for use in California. It apparently lacks the desire to do so, for what internal or external political reason I don't know and really can't even imagine. I have to wonder whether Mr. Morales [Caltrans Director] is aware that lower-down people are creating a completely unjustifiable conflict with the Coastal Commission and the Coastal Act. I would think that at the highest level, Caltrans would be delighted to be able to find a way to meet current safety requirements and satisfy completely the Coastal Commission's desire for a visually transparent railing.

I am hoping that one or more of you knows how to move the issue to the appropriate bureaucratic or political level... Hopefully, there are people at some level in Caltrans who support trying to balance environmental and safety considerations -- and would see that in this case that there is an environmentally superior solution that meets all nationally accepted safety requirements.

Peter Douglas replies, explaining that Caltrans "makes these JUDGMENTS  on safety all the time and we are not the agency to overrule them on that." I'm not at all happy with this response, because even though Mr. Douglas acknowledges that "they [need to] have some credible basis for that judgment [stet]," he makes clear that he is not prepared to get into a battle with them.

As Executive Director, Mr. Douglas powerfully influences Commission policies and actions. He continue in his email: "I think the most fruitful avenue to pursue is to get CalTrans to design their own high-scenic rail that meets their safety standards. I put it to them as a design, engineering challenge that I am sure they are up to." So far, they've shown little inclination to accept Mr. Douglas's challenge.

Still smarting from Caltrans' escalation of standards, I draft an expanded letter of rebuttal to the Commission, but my records show that I (sensibly) never sent it. Almost certainly, nothing would have been gained by sending a longer letter, which no one would have time to read, making the same points already made.

January, 2001: I begin casting about for possible allies who could influence Caltrans. I contact the American Iron and Steel Institute, thinking that a steel railing would be good for them. I learn from their executive director that they hosted a big seminar last July to interest road constructors in steel bridges. He says, "It was a complete failure. Caltrans, contractors, designers, firm owners all favor concrete." He adds, Caltrans doesn't like anything not invented there."

I contact the AAA of Northern California, hoping to enlist their support. I quickly find that they are not interested in taking on such a politically controversial issue.

Caltrans is applying for an amendment to its permit for the bridge, because its initial permit did not provide for an area to stage materials near the bridge. To obtain the needed area, they propose to close the city park at the entrance to the harbor for 3 years. I am am hoping to use the permit amendment as a vehicle for forcing redesign of the bridge -- which still has not begun construction. The maneuverings around this are peripheral to the narrative on scenic railings (and ultimately unsuccessful) and are not included here.

February, 2001: I contact the Environmental Department with Caltrans, hoping to find an ally to support the approval of the Wyoming Railing. I talk to a sympathetic staff person, who informs me that the department's mission is to see that Caltrans meets the requirements of California's environmental laws. I'm told there is no section within Caltrans concerned with innovative scenic initiatives.

At about this time, I find out that Caltrans has in the past made an exception to their "safety standards" to approve a metal railing that looks to me very much like the Wyoming rail for a project near Lake Tahoe. The acceptance occurred in the early 1990's, as a result of negotiations with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The railing was accepted by Caltrans for general use, particularly in areas with important scenic considerations.

I learn that Caltrans will be making a major presentation to the railing subcommittee in March, when I will be out of the country on vacation and unable to attend -- and in any event, I am unlikely to be invited attend after the December subcommittee-meeting experience. I feel certain that Caltrans will continue to push the committee to accept one of the ugly alternatives.

March, 2001: By now I have despaired of gaining allies inside or outside of Caltrans, except for the Coastal Commission. I also fear the effects of the Caltrans on the railing subcommittee in my absence.

Failing to get either the Commission or anyone else to approach the head of Caltrans, and buttressed by finding the Tahoe railing, I decide to take matters into my own hands. On March 6, I write to Director Morales asking him to "perform an  independent review of the position of the Engineering Services Center on the acceptability

Wyoming-like rail at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe,  1990s.

 of the Wyoming Rail for use in California." I tell him that Caltrans previously approved a Wyoming Rail for use at Lake Tahoe in the early 1990's.

At the same time, I also write the Coastal Commission, telling them of the approval of the Tahoe railing and of my letter to Morales. I ask them to also request an independent review. I cite the national legislation calling for flexibility and sensitivity to surroundings in highway construction:


National and state design standards give Caltrans wide latitude to accommodate special situations.  Preserving scenic values is widely recognized as an important reason to use this flexibility.  In passing the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, Congress emphasized, in addition to safety, the importance of transportation design that is sensitive to its surrounding environment, especially in historic and scenic areas. In the case of scenic railings, Caltrans could fulfill the public’s desire for the most visually transparent scenic railing without compromising safety in any way.  Instead the Engineering Service Center has rigidly opposed its approval.

To emphasize that I'm prepared to continue to document my case, on March 8, I make a Public Records Act request to Director Morales for all documents and information related to approval of the Tahoe railing and other railings similar to the Wyoming rail, and related to the rejection of the Wyoming rail for the Coastal Commission.

The Public Records Act is a powerful tool for those battling state bureaucracies. Although there are various exceptions, in general agencies must reveal internal documents that would otherwise never see the light of day. This lets you know what is going on inside, and perhaps as important, they know you know.

April, 2001: In a letter dated April 10, Caltrans responds to my letter to Caltrans Director Morales, but it is not from Morales, and it doesn't contain any evidence of the review of the engineering department that I requested. The letter is from Joseph Caputo, Director (Acting) of the Office of Geometric Design Standards. The main focus is a rebuttal of my contention that Caltrans earlier approved a Wyoming Railing for a project near Lake Tahoe. He informs me that, "Although visually similar to the 'Wyoming Rail', it is a rail system that was largely discontinued in the 1980's because ... [it] tended to 'snag' a vehicle... We have similar concerns about the ... "Wyoming Rail." I thought, "More of the same from Caltrans. Another futile effort to get them to change their position."

In retrospect, I see that Mr. Caputo's final paragraph hinted at a change: "I am confident that we will fulfill the Coastal Commission's desire to find a barrier system for the Noyo River Bridge that will satisfy our mutual, aesthetic, visibility, and safety requirements." [Emphasis added.] For him to be confident that all parties would be mutually satisfied, he knew that a new railing design was in prospect. At the time, though, I simply read this as more empty public relations verbiage. Good counsel is to guard against cynicism.

I am consumed during much of April with a proposed Caltrans permit amendment that would come up before the Coastal Commission in May. I am hopeful that the amendment would provide leverage to require Caltrans to reopen the bridge design process and come up with a narrower bridge. I plan to go to the May meeting to testify on the amendment.

On our about April 22, I email Chairperson Wan, copied to Peter Douglas and ask to meet with the railing subcommittee on May 11.

Sara emails back on April 23, suggesting I meet with her on Thursday and set up another meeting with the railing subcommittee (because no more than two commissioners can meet together outside of a public meeting).

On April 24, Steve Scholl writes back to me about my meeting request and includes material that dramatically change the railing picture, but I do not receive this material until April 27.

On April 26, I email the subcommittee asking for a meeting and include my pessimistic interpretation of Mr. Caputo's response to my letter to Director Morales. Included in this email is an earlier note to the subcommittee and staff from Chairperson Wan wondering if someone could sit down with me and a higher-up in Caltrans to convince them a better railing would be in their own interest.

On April 27, I receive the April 24 letter from Steve Scholl of the Commission. The body of the letter discusses the impossibility of setting up a meeting with the subcommittee. Apparently as a matter of form, he includes with the letter correspondence from Rick Land of Caltrans, as well as letters he wrote the same day to the subcommittee about scheduling a May 2 meeting with Caltrans.

When I look at Rick Land's letter, I can hardly believe my eyes! In this letter, mailed on April 10, and mailed toCA ST-10-72 ppi.JPG (114021 bytes) the subcommittee, Steve Scholl and Peter Douglas, Mr. Land  he says that Caltrans has decided to develop a new scenic railing, the California ST-10. He includes a photo of "what this new California rail type might look like." The new California Rail is nearly identical to the Wyoming Rail! 

Not until preparing this history did I notice that Mr. Caputo replied to my letter to Mr. Morales on the same date that Mr. Land wrote to the Commission about its new railing. This was certainly not coincidental. How long this railing had been in gestation, I don't know and may never know. At some point, though, at some level, Caltrans decided to create a design that was visually comparable to the Wyoming Rail. The cumulative effect of all of my efforts finally tipped the balance from resistance to acceptance.

At last, what I've been fighting to achieve for a year and a half has come to pass. Remarkably, no one at the commission has noticed the contents, or at least the significance, of Mr. Lands letter and photo. Almost two weeks have passed, and the communications among members and staff of the commission and with me, reflect no awareness of that the railing we've been seeking has been offered.  This testifies to the overwhelming amount of information with which the commission needs to deal and the important function that public interveners can provide to the commission.

Because I am not bombarded by a thousand pages of information a week (not an exaggeration), I immediately realize the significance of the new "Caltrans scenic rail", the California ST-10.

I'm delighted with the new railing, but am concerned that: 1) it may not be feasible to include on the Noyo Bridge if crash testing is required and construction starts on the bridge this summer; 2) it be used as the traffic barrier in a two rail system, not as part of a combined pedestrian-auto rail. I prepare a letter to follow up on these and other points.

May 1, 2001: I email the Commission a letter congratulating Caltrans on the new ST-10 scenic railing and offer suggestions for capitalizing on this breakthrough.

 Later that same day, I learn that Caltrans has announced a delay in start of construction of the Noyo Bridge until 2002, cancellation of its current construction contract, and that construction will not be completed until 2005. I

In its letter informing the Coastal Commission of the construction delay, Caltrans also says, "In that the project has been delayed, Caltrans has committed to consider alternative bridge railing designs [for the Noyo Bridge]."

All of the obstacles against which I had been pushing for so long suddenly dissolve!  Caltrans proposes the railing I'd been campaigning for, construction is delayed long enough to permit the new railing to go onto the Noyo Bridge, and Caltrans commits to putting a new rail on the bridge. This is certainly a red letter day in the bridge-railing battle.

May 11, 2001: The Commission meets and hears about the new delay in the construction. Commissioners are clearly upset a the second delay for the bridge they reluctantly approved two years ago only because Caltrans asserted that any delays would endanger the public because of seismic safety risks.

I congratulate Caltrans and the Commission on the success in obtaining a truly visually transparent railing for California bridges. I urge the Commission to require that the new railing be used on the Noyo Bridge as part of a "two-rail" system, consisting of the ST-10 on the traffic side of the sidewalk and a traditional spoke railing be used on the outer edge of the bridge.

I also urge the Commission to use the delay to require that Caltrans analyze alternative designs to see whether a narrower bridge would be feasible. I urge the Commission to deny a permit amendment requested by Caltrans until Caltrans provides the Commission with the alternatives analysis.

The Commission votes to approve the requested amendment, but includes two important conditions:
1) Caltrans is to immediately release its $1 million mitigation penalty to Fort Bragg; 2) Caltrans is to come back to the Commission with alternative railing choices for the bridge a) before construction starts on the bridge or b) within 1-1/2 years, whichever comes first.

Putting a better railing on the bridge is, thus, no longer a choice of Caltrans but a requirement of its permit. Given the availability of the ST-10 and the determination of the Commission, something far better that the original Caltrans concrete "see-little" railing is certain.

June, 2001: Commission Chairperson Sara Wan writes to Caltrans Director Jeff Morales, summarizing the recommendations of the Bridge Railing Subcommittee. The key recommendation focus on the design of a new that would move beyond the ST-10 by including curved and arched elements and would incorporate elements of historic bridges. [To date, August 2005, Caltrans has not put forward any railing designs that incorporate the Commission's recommendations. What they have proposed is another discouraging example of Caltrans lack of aesthetic sensibilities.]

September 2003: In preparation for submitting a preferred railing design to the Commission, Caltrans holds an open house in Fort Bragg and solicits public opinion. It provides as one choice, the two-rail system that I have been urging.

I rally supporters in the area to attend the open house and/or email the Coastal Commission expressing their preference. The overwhelming public choice is the two-rail system.

November 2003: The Commission approves Caltrans proposed use on the Noyo Bridge of "a dual Type ST-10 crash barrier and picket railing system...," exactly the combination that I had been urging for  2-1/2 years. The design by Caltrans includes old-fashioned lighting fixtures that add to the traditional look of the railing.

August 2005: The new Noyo Bridge is complete, with scenic railings in place and being enjoyed by all. A happy ending to a long story.

Harbor side of Noyo Bridge, August 2005

Coastal vista from center of Noyo Bridge, August, 2005

August 22, 2005 Postscript:  Demonstrating how success changes attitudes, the Fort Bragg City Council, which had unanimously rejected my criticisms of the Noyo Bridge in 1999, issued a proclamation commending me "for protecting coastal views from new bridges built in California's Coastal Zone."


Thanks are due to many people who helped out along the way: I want to especially acknowledge  the essential help of Roanne Withers of Fort Bragg, Richard Powers of the Federal Highway Administration, the staff of the Wyoming Highway Department, in particular Greg Frederick, several staff members of Caltrans, Coastal Commissioners Chris Desser, Sara Wan, and Shirley Detloff, and Commission staff members Jack Liebster, Steve Scholl, Jim Baskin, and Executive Director Peter Douglas.  Ron Lester generously contributed large-scale drawings depicting the impact of the new bridge. And, of course, none of this would have occurred without the the letters and attendance at numerous meeting of the citizens who supported efforts to obtain a better bridge and railing.

This is a work in progress. If you have corrections, comments or would like to be informed when it is updated, please contact me.

Vince Taylor
August 19, 2005

[i] There are two designs of the Wyoming Rail.  Both have passed current crash tests.  Both offer higher safety levels (TL-3 and TL-4) than the 80SW railing proposed by Caltrans for use on the Noyo Bridge (TL-2). 

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