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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Chairman of the Transportation Commission.
The Commission staff sent a letter to the head
of the Wyoming Department of Transportation as requested. It also sent a
engineering staff asking
them to provide the information I'd requested in my letter of July
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
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.
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
citing FHA acceptance of the pictured rail for use on the Federal
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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:"
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."
Caltrans's repeated shifting of "safety standards" over time and argue:
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.
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.
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:
I hope you all understand is that the choice of scenic railing no
longer depends on any technical
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Wyoming-like rail at Emerald Bay,
Lake Tahoe, 1990s.
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
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
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 to 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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
votes to approve the requested amendment, but includes two important
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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 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
August 19, 2005
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).