F0RT BRAGG, 6/19/23 — This summer, residents and travelers north of Fort Bragg will be cut off during 10 all-night complete closures of the Pudding Creek Bridge, located just north of the last traffic light in the City of Fort Bragg. Highway 1 will be closed to all traffic north of Pudding Creek Bridge from 10 p.m to 4 a.m for 10 nights in July and September. And expect delays even if you can access the bridge: starting Monday until August 29, the Pudding Creek Bridge will be governed by a 24/7 traffic light that will only allow one lane, heading in one direction, at a time. Backups are expected to be constant during the heart of the city’s tourist and festival season. The light at Elm Street will also be turned off, making highway flow a bit easier. Elm Street users must negotiate a four-way stop or drive back south.
Complete bridge closures will begin at 10 p.m. on July 12, 13, 17, 18 and 19 and end the next morning at 4 a.m. There will be a second round of closures using the same time frame on Sept. 11, 12, 13, 23 and 247.
Caltrans rarely closes bridges or highways entirely. In most cases when bridges are being renovated, the state transportation agency can keep one lane open. When bridges are being replaced, they keep the old bridge in use as long as possible and use both new and old bridges to keep traffic flowing. That happened when the Noyo and Ten Mile bridges were replaced.
But complete closures are needed for the Pudding Creek Bridge. They are currently likely on two other similar HIghway 1 bridge projects, the 1947 vintage Hare Creek Bridge at the south end of Fort Bragg, set to be replaced in 2025, and the 1939 vintage Jack Peters Bridge at the entrance to Mendocino, set to be replaced in the summer of 2024. Inspection reports, newly provided by Caltrans to the Mendocino Voice through public records act requests, show all three bridges are structurally sound. But all three also suffer from crumbling concrete railings and other issues that make upgrading them a necessity. With upgrades the bridges will substantially increase their working lives and maintenance costs will plummet. The upgrading also allows Caltrans to widen the bridges to modern standards. All three currently have death-defyingly narrow sidewalks. But because the bridges are so narrow and the rail has to be removed, the bridge has to be closed entirely for heavy work on some nights. Caltrans will remove the entire west side concrete railing during the first overnight closure time frame in July, then put in the wider road, then turn to the east side to begin removing that railing. This will allow the newly widened west side to help mitigate the remaining closures to some degree and keep the bridge open just as Paul Bunyan Days kicks off over Labor Day weekend. But that’s only if everything goes according to schedule. The announced all-night closure dates could change, depending on progress made during the project. There will be no Friday or Saturday night all-night closures, and any change to the all-night closure schedule will involve at least seven days’ notice, Geoffrey Wright, a Caltrans engineer said.
“We’re hoping to be completed by October 15,” Wright explained in a Zoom meeting last week. “There is the potential that the project could run a little longer than that based on either material delays or construction delays. The only thing certain in construction is that some things will change.”
What about worker and emergency access?
While Caltrans has made contingency plans and held a public Zoom meeting about the closure, the agency has not revealed details that would provide answers to questions such as how those who work swing or night shift in Fort Bragg and live north of the bridge get home. An unknown number of workers in the hotel, grocery, medical and restaurant-bar business get off work after 10 p.m. How will they manage? The Pudding Creek Project has one huge advantage over the other two possible projects, namely the Pudding Creek trestle located 200 yards to the west. The trestle is only good for foot and bike traffic after being restored by State Parks. It can never accomplish its original use to carry oversized logging trucks and trains.
This reporter works at the hospital and gets off at 11:30 p.m. I am planning to take my Honda CRV with a bike rack on the back to the State Parks parking lot north of the bridge and ride the bike over the trestle 3.5 miles down the Haul Road to work. But that brings up more questions, such as that lot being unlighted and not a place I would choose to be at night. And it’s currently not OK with State Parks to use the lot as a Park and Ride.
What about medical emergencies?
Caltrans provided some information about what would happen if an ambulance was needed for an emergency on the north side of the bridge. Caltrans says plans have been made to station an unmanned ambulance on the north side during those ten nights. Although full details weren’t available, an ambulance crew would be brought to the bridge by another crew, then walk across the bridge to the parked second ambulance. The wait would be at least 15 minutes.
Said bridge project manager Caren Coonrod, “We are coordinating the closures with emergency responders. First responders will be located on both sides of the bridge during all plans for road closures. And the emergency dispatch officer will contact the contractor’s safety officer who is the designated point of contact to coordinate the bridge opening for emergency crews. Construction will escort the emergency responders through the construction site.”
Fort Bragg Police Capt. Thomas O’Neal attended the Zoom meeting and described further contingency planning, such as the ability of first responders to use a helicopter instead of an ambulance if it looked like the closure could present a serious issue. Helicopters can reach the Coast in 15 minutes but are not always available in foggy July. The city limits (despite appearances) extends another mile past the bridge. O’Neal detailed how police have prepared to use the trestle for any arrests or other responses that might occur.
Jon Glidewell, who manages the Beachcomber Motel Group north of the bridge, asked for consideration for employees of the motels north of the bridge and for guests who may check in late or leave early.
“We can’t do a whole lot for his hotel guests,” O”Neal answered Glidewell.
“However, the entire Glass Beach drive is wide open for parking as long as it’s not camping parking and [employees] can technically access his hotel by the trestle. That will provide him some relief hopefully. As for the public safety standpoint, I met with Adventist Health Mendocino Coast ambulance director Davey Beak. We’re expecting minimal to no delays on emergencies on that side,” O Neal said.
He said the project would change how police respond to routine calls.
But “If there’s a suspect involved or active crimes, we will be over there,” O’Neal said.
So far, no information has been announced about county sheriff or fire responses. The Fort Bragg Volunteer Fire Department does have a station north of the bridge on Little Valley Road and volunteers live in that area. In some possible emergencies, pushing a gurney across the Pudding Creek Trestle has been discussed in contingency planning.
“We’ve tried our best to develop a good plan here with the various emergency services. And to answer the question directly we’re hoping that it would be 15 minutes maximum from the time when a need to pass an emergency vehicle to the time that vehicle can pass,” said Wright.
In response to an offer for Caltrans to use a vacant parcel for parking and staging across from the Caltrans building at the end of Airport Road that housed the Hi-Seas Motel until it burned down in 2007, project manager Coonrod said they will wait and see.
“At this time, we are not [renting the parcel] but we would be interested, I guess, in these discussions especially if we start to have significant traffic impacts. But at this time, we are hoping that traffic moves smoothly and that the traffic can accommodate rush hour two to five, and we’ll see how it goes,” he said.
The “wait and see” approach was reiterated throughout the meeting and appeared to be why specifics have yet to be released. But they could have a big impact on residents.
The Mendocino Voice has asked Supervisor Dan Gjerde, Fort Bragg Mayor Bernie Norvell and other leaders to comment. We are awaiting responses. Ideas put forward have been to provide a shuttle on the south side of Pudding Creek or both sides of the bridge or Caltrans renting an extra parking lot at the end of Airport Road to make backups go more smoothly.
Pudding Creek Bridge lane closures over the past four months have already made traveling from Fort Bragg to Cleone, Inglenook and Westport a hassle, which will only get worse when the single-lane light is activated Monday morning. Backups with an estimated average delay time of 20 minutes will happen on every trip to and from town, even over the weekends and all night long. Caltrans workdays start at 9 a.m and end at 7 p.m on weekdays, but the light will be in place even when workers are not on the scene, said Manny Machado, Caltrans District 1 spokesman. The traffic signal at Elm Street and Highway 1 will be turned off and stop signs used on Elm Street. That light is about 100 yards from the bridge.
Engineer Wright said there was no way to avoid the overnight closures. He said lighted signs will be put up at Highway 20 and Highway 1 as well as Highway 101 and Highway 20 warning about the closures. A detour is available.
“You can elect, if you choose to, to drive on Highway 1 to Highway 20 to Highway 101 to Leggett and then come back down Highway 1. We realize it’s an extensive tour, but that is a feasible route that can be employed if necessary. We went through an extensive design process and based on the permitting conditions that we were expected to comply with, this is the leanest schedule that we can have,” Wright said. That detour is 79 miles and estimated by Google maps to take more than 2 hours.
Roger Larson, owner of Cleone Grocery and Campground, has been hearing for weeks from customers upset with delays they say have been longer than Caltrans estimates. He has a new group of customers he calls “the Pudding Creek Crew.” The two most populated residential areas north of the bridge are Pudding Creek Drive and Airport Road, both of which are immediately north of the bridge. These people usually shop in Fort Bragg but are now going north.
“We have already seen a sharp increase in customers and heard from a lot of people on this side of the bridge that they want to come here rather than go to town,” said Larson. The store is open from 7:30 a.m to 9 p.m seven days a week and also offers regular unleaded gasoline.
Matson Building Materials, the other retail business between the bridge and Westport, is open Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m to 5:30 p.m.
The bridge closure cuts off the last mile of the city limits and much of its industrial area. The city limits run narrowly along Highway 1 up to Virgin Creek.That area includes five hotels very popular with visitors, hotels usually booked up all summer. There are also 10 industrial facilities, including the garbage transfer station, which serves the entire Fort Bragg area before garbage is sent back across the bridge to be dumped inland. Anderson Lumber trucks use their facility behind the transfer station. There is also a large senior citizen modular housing project, the Holly Ranch apartments, and Green Acres and Cleone campgrounds, both of which have been full with visitors all summer for many years. Further north, the town of Westport has the only other retail grocery and the only deli for take-out food. There are no restaurants.
Another potential issue brought up by local people is long lines on Airport Road and Pudding Creek Road and highway travelers unwilling to let them out.
“In the event we get extreme backups that can’t be queued, there are changes to traffic operations that can be done,” Wright said. “If it proves a persistent problem, we can implement flaggers to help clear queues. But with the current modeling it suggests that the queues will be minimal. And we rely on good courtesy of the public to allow vehicles to merge in,” said Wright.
Sakina Bush, who lives north of the bridge, said the delays have already made deliveries and watering of plant starts to Harvest Market and Down Home Foods unreasonably time-consuming, with six to seven hours per week of her sitting in the car. She changed the way she did business “Today, since I had the inventory from yesterday afternoon, I was able to make the delivery and then go on to some work in Caspar, and then back through town in the afternoon. Only one round trip today! So, this is probably going to end up saving us some gas money and possibly change our routines permanently going forward, possibly into next year,” Bush said.
Joseph DuVivier, whose house is on Airport Road, said the delays that have already been happening have been a big pain. He is not looking forward to traveling after Monday. “Up until now at least they knocked off at a reasonable hour so I could just wait and then get into town. Once they go to a single lane 24/7 it will be really aggravating,” he said.
While locals have hit long delays already and fear worse this summer, Caltrans hopes that traffic backups won’t be that bad.
Wright said delays are expected to be the worst from 2 p.m.-6 p.m., when delays up to 20 minutes are forecast.“Our modeling suggests that we have three- to seven-minute delays the majority of the rest of the day,” he said. “And so just planning a little ahead in the morning would probably be a good thing. Or in the evening time, whatever is necessary. We’re sorry for the inconvenience, but we need to get this improved so that we can meet the mission and vision and goals for increased mobility with this project.”
Will the forecasts, based on traffic engineering studies, be more accurate than locals’ fears?
Why such major work?
Bridge inspection reports, requested in November by the Mendocino Voice and delivered by Caltrans on Thursday reveal more reasons why Pudding Creek was chosen first. The reports show that the Pudding Creek Bridge is a sound bridge with a life expectancy of another 70 years. It has serious issues that don’t make the bridge unsafe but need quicker remediation to prevent higher costs in the future. These issues include embankment erosion from an unknown water source. The other issue is “spalling” or concrete cracking. Another issue is lots of rusty rebar. The bridge was built in 1959 and had an earthquake retrofit in 1998. Rebar is used in earthquake retrofitting.
The next bridge on the docket, the Jack Peters Bridge which could go as soon as 2024, was earthquake-retrofitted in 1997. The large amount of rebar was part of making these bridges earthquake resilient. Rebar used today has greater resistance to rust. Rusty rebar causes more concrete decay. Fixing those issues can be done as the bridge widening and rail replacement is done. When construction crews take each side off, they can deal with exposed and rusty rebar and other non-structural concrete issues.
The present schedule shows project approval at the end of 2024 for the Albion River Bridge, and the end of 2027 for the Salmon Creek Bridge in . The Elk Creek Bridge is also scheduled for replacement to begin as early as next year. The Little River Bridge has the same problems with crumbling concrete railings and being too narrow, but it has not yet been put on the schedule.