The Santa Barbara City Council rejected the Public Works Department’s proposed Mission Canyon Bridge rehabilitation plan and requested the department return with pedestrian path options in the fall.
The council voted 4-2 on the agenda item during its meeting Tuesday, with council members Kristen Sneddon and Alejandra Gutierrez dissenting in favor of a modest bridge upgrade.
Rejecting the proposed options forfeits grant funding Public Works had secured during the project’s inception. New grant cycles in the Highway Bridge Program require cities to match funding at nearly double the rate previously.
The city is not currently aware of outside funding to improve pedestrian access in Mission Canyon.
City Administrator Paul Casey cautioned council members against declining the options and federal funds.
“Pedestrian options are not easy. You’ve seen all the complicated issues, and to fit in pedestrian options is going to touch on a lot of the same issues,” he said.
“This area is just really hard to find consensus on. It’s a tough, land-constrained, historic, rich area.”
Initially, the council voted on a motion made by Councilmember Mike Jordan to pursue a renovation at an estimated cost of $5.5 million to the city. Mayor Cathy Murillo seconded the motion, and councilmember Oscar Gutierrez was also in favor.
A unifying factor among those who would like to keep the bridge as-is and those who prefer to rebuild the structure is the need for accessibility.
Mr. Jordan was the first to mention the Americans with Disabilities Act, concerned about the city’s liability, which soon became a theme throughout the over four-hour-long discussion.
City Engineer and ADA Coordinator Brian D’Amour addressed concerns.
“Whether or not we’re exposed or have any liability there, I would just say that in general, we’ve got a lot of liability throughout just in our right of way through nonconforming things,” he said. “Historic properties are not exempt from ADA requirements. And to the greatest extent possible, historic buildings or structures must be as accessible as non-historic buildings.”
A ramp was added to the bridge around 1930, according to council comments.
“(The bridge) is clearly not up to any current, or even recent past, standard for accessibility,” Mr. D’Amour said. “Normally the ADA allows for a process that you go through with a historic structure … The issue here is we have a bridge, and you have to go from point A to point B.”
Councilmember Sneddon said she has seen wheelchair users push themselves on the street because the path isn’t usable.
Controversy arises out of the structure’s historic significance. The National Register of Historic Places recognized the Mission Canyon Bridge individually in February 2020, and the area itself is a historic resource.
Until Caltrans deems the bridge “structurally deficient,” the City must maintain the historic resource. The structural sufficiency rating has dropped from 52 to 44 in the past two years but is not “deficient.”
“We have some (bridges) that have reached a lower sufficiency rating that are still in use. The issue we have with that sufficiency rating is that it’s kind of a guideline for the city that as it drops, it may be critical in the near term and as we know, it takes a long time to both design and construct bridge replacements,” Engineering Project Manager Eric Goodall said.
The bridge could potentially be damaged in an earthquake, as one of its abutments sits on a faultline.
Public Works proposed plans that used the current stone’s construction and added a second arch or constructed a hidden concrete structure inside the stone. All plans include widening the bridge.
The Santa Barbara Historic Landmarks Commission preferred to leave the bridge as-is but supported the idea of adding a separate pedestrian bridge.
“The bridge is kind of a microcosm of what’s coming ahead of, of the significant changes that are taking place, in terms of losing the historic nature of our city, versus the need to progress and to adapt to the times,” Councilmember Eric Friedman said. “And that’s always the case in cities. But in Santa Barbara, we’re internationally known for the preservation of our city.”
Mayor Murillo said the Mission Canyon bridge has made it to council many times but that it’s “time to do something.”