FORT BRAGG, 11/27/23 — On a blindingly sunny Nov. 16 morning, Caltrans Corridor Manager Jaime Matteoli praised the Pudding Creek Bridge reconstruction project during a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, saying the project had come in on time and within the original construction budget of $8.5 million. “And more importantly, everybody went home safe, due to no injuries happening during the project,” Matteoli said.
The triumphant moment stands out amid past and present controversies with coastal activists. Caltrans says that two bridges of the eleven on the coast are critically in need of replacement, while four others need new wider decks and rail replacement.
Matteoli drew the praise of other invited dignitaries at the ribbon-cutting, including Assemblymember Jim Wood, who had just announced his retirement the day before. He praised the recent work of Caltrans and the beauty of the Mendocino Coast.
“Mendocino will have to show some things to Sonoma County. I went to a bridge dedication there this week, and it was dark and rainy,” he quipped. Wood said Caltrans is updating its bridges to fit the times, citing the wide, safer lanes on Pudding Creek Bridge and wide, protected sidewalks that can serve the handicapped and allow people to pause and enjoy the view.
Wood went on to say that the bridge in Sonoma County at Gleason Creek was the first bridge ever needing replacement because of climate change. That project, estimated to cost almost $70 million, realigned the current route over wetlands and Scott Creek further inland because of constant damage to the bluffs and the roadway by the ocean over the past 20 years. Wood added that he would endorse one of the candidates now vying to replace him in the Assembly, but would listen to all of them first.
The Pudding Creek bridge project represented a reversal of Caltrans’ fortunes with the activist community, which over the years has strongly opposed and blocked some bridges from being replaced and successfully lobbied for more scenic and pedestrian features than Caltrans wanted to provide when the agency replaced the Noyo River and Ten Mile River bridges. With four more bridges with difficulties similar to Pudding Creek (narrow lanes, crumbling railings), Caltrans hopes its newfound luck will hold.
At the ceremonial opening, advertised as a ribbon-cutting, there was no ribbon or giant scissors or broken bottles of local bubbly as there has been at past bridge events, but praise was as plentiful as the sunlight. The ceremony took place not on the amply wide bridge but in the parking lot north of the bridge, an area also modified during the process to improve water flow and flood control. The bridge was praised for its artistic rail design that features silvery salmon made of high grade galvanized steel. Each side of the bridge contains 74 salmon, seeming to swim and jump along the rails to which they are welded.
Caltrans also got praise for its new sidewalks and for allowing an upgrade to city water and sewer lines. And several mentioned that the agency had created much less of a traffic snarl during construction than many had feared.
John Smith, director of the public works department for the City of Fort Bragg, described how well Caltrans had worked with the city on difficult problems like the slope on East Manzanita Street on the east side where the street meets the bridge and moving the city water line to the east side of the bridge. That water line had been nothing but trouble when it was attached to the Pudding Creek Dam about 100 yards to the north. Smith said the dam was undercut by erosion, threatening the water line, and the bridge project arrived just in time. The city sewer line now runs below the scenic rails attached to the west side of the bridge like a giant serpent. On the east, the smaller water line runs in the same position.
It wasn’t just the politicians celebrating the bridge. A couple passing cars beeped their horns, and one offered a thumbs-up. A man in motorcycle boots, leather pants and jacket took his hands off his handlebars to clap his hands above his head as he buzzed past.
There was only one man from MCM Constructors, the company that actually built the bridge. The company is famously interested in the next job when done, not in attending galas for completed work, one Caltrans employee said.
Matteoli went out on the bridge to show this reporter how the special footlights on the bridge work. They are designed to shine on the path for night walkers while not being seen by passing cars.
What’s next on the bridge docket?
The next bridge up for major work will be the Jack Peters Creek Bridge at the north entrance to the town of Mendocino. That project started last week with the erection of an 80-foot steel utility pole that will carry wires up and away from the project, which is slated to last through the next two summers. That bridge, built during the Great Depression with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration stimulus money, is as solid and sturdy as any on the coast. But it has crumbling railings like Pudding Creek had and is even narrower. While Pudding Creek had a dangerously narrow sidewalk, Jack Peters has none at all and is one of the most dangerous spots for those traversing the California Coastal Trail. When it was built, cars were slower, and more importantly trucks were smaller. Traffic tie-ups are expected throughout the two-year duration, and Caltrans also plans overnight closures.
The next bridge to be upgraded was to have been the Hare Creek Sgt. Emil Evenson Memorial Bridge south of Fort Bragg, but that has been taken off the schedule for now.
The Mendocino Coast has two bridges that attract tourists. The Albion River Bridge was built entirely of recycled materials during World War II, because of steel shortages. It is 970 feet long and the tallest bridge on the Mendocino Coast at 140 feet above the Albion River, and is the last tall wooden highway bridge in use in California. Its towering legs, made from giant old growth douglas fir, are a favorite for photographers.
The Albion River Bridge and the neighboring Albion Salmon Creek bridge are the only two bridges on the Mendocino Coast north of the Navarro River to be targeted for replacement. (Jack Peters Creek and the Hare Creek bridges are not replacements but are considered renovations.) Pollution from lead paint shavings must be cleaned up below the Salmon Creek Bridge first. The actual replacement project is expected to start in 2030, according to Caltrans officials. Local protesters, led by the Albion River Bridge Stewards, stopped efforts by Caltrans to replace the Albion River Bridge a decade ago and helped get it onto the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. Caltrans gave in on calling the Albion River Bridge a replacement project and now lists it as a “replacement or renovation” project.
The only other California bridges on the National Register of Historic Places are the Golden Gate Bridge and the Big Sur Bridge, or Bixby Bridge.
The other world-famous bridge of the 11 is the 1940 Russian Gulch Bridge, famous for one of the greatest feats of engineering ever by Caltrans (then the California Department of Transportation). The Russian Gulch Bridge, featured in many engineering and architecture publications, is a tribute to the grand Roman Arch and the history of architecture. It is named for Frederick W. Panhorst, who directed the building of many of the bridges along the California coast that began in the 1920s. The Russian Gulch Bridge and the nearby Little River Bridge need earthquake retrofitting; Russian Gulch has the same crumbling railings that afflict Jack Peters and Hare Creek. However, Russian Gulch’s are in much better shape and no date for work on that bridge has been put on the schedule.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and other media have repeated the claim that the realignment of the roadway and bridge over Scotty Creek in Sonoma County is a groundbreaking effort in climate change mitigation. But many other projects have dealt with increased ocean and river scouring. A summary by the project consultant gives a broader picture, including the role played by housing that was allowed to be built close together on the bluffs.
The Ten Mile River Bridge and the Pudding Creek Bridge are superb places to view a wide variety of shorebirds, herons, kingfishers, geese, raptors and sometimes even swans that were introduced to the area long ago.
Previous coverage of Pudding Creek: