Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
The Main Street Bridge in Half Moon Bay connects State Route 92 to downtown and is in need of repairs.
Preliminary rendering of the rebuilt bridge.
A contentious debate over the fate of a 114-year-old failing bridge will be taken to Half Moon Bay voters in the June 6 election, but supporters of the historic infrastructure say they plan on placing their measure on a ballot at least twice and intend to sue the city.
The City Council voted to put two measures on the next available ballot at a meeting Tuesday night to gauge public opinion on replacing or preserving the narrow Main Street Bridge between State Route 92 and Half Moon Bay’s downtown.
The city was awarded nearly $9 million in federal funding that hinges on replacing it to bring it up to current safety standards, while preserving it would likely need to be self supported with money the city can’t afford, Councilman Rick Kowalczyk said.
Tempers flared when the council approved replacing the bridge last September with some citizens adamant about preserving a piece of the city’s history and worried closing one of the area’s main artery for any period of time would be harmful to merchants.
But city officials said transit authorities have declared it seismically unsafe and is too narrow for bikes and those with disabilities to traverse safely. Visitors would still have to access downtown via Highway 1 and the council said it would try to avoid peak tourist season during construction.
“Safety was our number one priority and I know you don’t want to hear it,” Mayor John Muller said. “In a governing position, I have to govern for the unexpected … I cannot govern for the past. I want to keep the past, but I have to govern for the future.”
A group of citizens created the ballot measure “Main Street Bridge Preservation Act,” which would prevent the city from demolishing the bridge unless a majority of voters and the council approve it during a subsequent election, according to a city staff report.
A citizen-initiated ballot would require 10 percent of voter signatures before it can be placed and would likely not appear in front of the public until November, said resident John Lynch.
In the interest of expediting the process, the council voted to place the citizens and a city generated measures on the June ballot.
The city’s “Main Street Bridge Safety and Accessibility Act,” would allow it to rehabilitate or replace it to bring it up to seismic and Americans with Disabilities Act standards, according to the report.
But some citizens say the council is trying to confuse voters by placing both measures at once.
Resident George Muteff was disappointed with the council’s decision because if they “want to hear what people have to say, wouldn’t you put it on the November ballot when you’re going to get the most response?”
Either way, it could take years of undergoing extensive impact reports such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act before the city can take any physical action, Muller said.
There’s been a lot of misinformation and myths that the council intends to circumvent the environmental review process and build some steel monstrosity of a bridge, Vice Mayor Marina Fraser said. She’s extremely concerned that if the city is prevented from making it safe and someone were to get injured, the city would ultimately be liable, Fraser said.
“I kind of have an issue with this even being on a ballot because [the council is] supposed to take care of policy,” Fraser said. “I think as a council and as a city we have a responsibility to make sure infrastructure gets built responsibly. If it’s a design element, ask the community.”
The two-lane bridge is narrow and needs to be widened to allow for bicyclists and those in wheelchairs, Kowalczyk said. Plus, it doesn’t align with the rest of the street. The council wants the new bridge to look consistent with the historic one, just safer, Kowalczyk said.
Because it’s a historic bridge, it doesn’t have to be replaced under federal or state mandates and it’s an integral part of downtown, said Lennie Roberts, legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills.
“They’re proposing a much wider street bridge and this bridge really helps to define downtown and gives it the sense of a historic arrival when you come into [Half Moon Bay,]” Roberts said.
The city has acted unjustly, Roberts said. It has altered part of the language in the citizens’ submitted ballot proposal and placing the city’s measure in June circumvents CEQA requirements, Roberts said.
Those seeking to preserve the bridge have hired an attorney and, in a letter delivered to the council Tuesday, warned the city would face legal action and substantial financial penalties if it places the city’s measure on the ballot, according to attorney Joseph Cotchett’s letter.
The city minimally changed the citizens’ ballot measure so it would appear to be more neutral but kept the same substantive language so as to engage, but not sway, public opinion, City Attorney Tony Condotti said. After confirming with outside counsel, he does not believe Cotchett’s allegations apply to this particular ballot measure, Condotti said.
The city is acting in the interest of public safety and this small group of people are acting based on their emotions, not facts, Muller said.
“I don’t govern on threats, I govern on facts. … The threats of a lawsuit in municipal government in America, we live with this daily,” Muller said. “If someone wants to sue us it’ll take longer, the lawsuits will continue to drain the staff and the city, but we have an obligation to fix this bridge.”
The steel, dirt and cement of the 1900s are long overdue for an upgrade and the council needs to create a safe and lasting Main Street Bridge, Fraser said. She’s frustrated with accusations and people pitting safety against history, so it’s time to put it to a vote, Fraser said.
“If you want true preservation, you would be talking about horses and buggies and no cars … The reality is it’s 114 years old, packed with steel, dirt, cement of that era. Things have been upgraded a whole lot since then,” Fraser said. “I think we need to put something on the ballot to get it over with.”
For more information about the Main Street Bridge Project visit www.half-moon-bay.ca.us.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106