February 18, 2013

Sacramento, West Sac get serious about two new river bridges

Portland, Ore., boasts 10 bridges, several within blocks of each other over the Willamette River. Chicago, Pittsburgh and other river cities are liberally criss-crossed by sturdy spans, as well.

Portland, Ore., boasts 10 bridges, several within blocks of each other over the Willamette River. Chicago, Pittsburgh and other river cities are liberally criss-crossed by sturdy spans, as well.

Sacramento has just three river crossings in its downtown, and for a half- century, the idea of new bridges has been a non-starter.

Until now.

After years of giving each other the cold shoulder across the Sacramento River, the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento are hurrying to finance not one, but two bridges – an effort they say will boost development on both banks and knit previous economic enemies into one community.

The modest Tower Bridge and the antiquated I Street span are old-school and not up to the task, they say. And the arched Pioneer Bridge carrying Highway 50 over the river is a regional freeway conduit, not a downtown riverfront connector.

"It has become really clear that (new) bridges are essential for both cities," West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon said last week. "Now that the economy is picking back up, we need to be ahead of the boom in the riverfront districts."

The two cities have jointly applied for $77 million in federal funds to build a bridge into Sacramento's downtown railyard just north of the I Street Bridge. And they are about to launch a funding effort to build another bridge south of downtown that would likely link Broadway in Sacramento with 15th Street in West Sacramento.

Officials also talk about building a pedestrian- and-bicycle bridge between two budding neighborhoods near the river, the R Street Corridor in Sacramento and the Bridge District next to the Raley Field baseball park in West Sacramento.

The timing makes sense, said Tim Youmans, a founding partner at Economic & Planning Systems, a land economics consulting firm with offices in Sacramento.

"We are coming out of a recession," Youmans said. "A lot (of construction) has been planned on both sides of the river. Now, it's 'carpe diem.' If you want economic development, you need transportation access."

West Sacramento has spent millions of dollars in the last few years on new streets in the Raley Field area, and is about to launch riverside housing and office projects. Tractors were pushing dirt last week for apartments just yards from the river.

For its part, the city of Sacramento this year will extend Fifth and Sixth streets into its empty downtown railyard next to the river, opening 200 acres for development.

Just south of downtown, Sacramento plans new housing and businesses at the west end of the Broadway corridor, as well as a riverfront development just south of downtown.

"If we get it right, the western section of Broadway has an amazing opportunity to be very vibrant," said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen. "A bridge plays into that greater vision."

The joint bridge effort – and an earlier waterfront-planning effort – are evidence of an evolution in the relationship between the two cities. They also plan a cross-river streetcar system that might run on both new bridges.

For years, Sacramento and West Sacramento competed economically. Former Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna Jr. dismissed West Sacramento in the 1990s as a place suitable only for warehouses.

West Sacramento has since landed major office projects and lured retailers such as Ikea, built Raley Field and urban housing projects, and laid groundwork for even more riverside development.

"It's creating in some ways a single place," Cabaldon said, "and we have to have a transportation system for walkers, bikers, cars and transit riders to support that."

Officials in the two cities have been studying bridge concepts for several years, but previously said the first span was probably more than a decade away. Now, they say both bridges could be reality in as few as six years.

Word on the initial $77 million funding request should come this spring.

"Unofficially, we heard (our application) is really strong, exactly in the wheelhouse," Sacramento Public Works Director Jerry Way said.

The money would go to a northern bridge to replace car usage on the 101-year-old I Street Bridge. That span, which is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, would remain a train bridge. But its elevated car ramps likely would be torn down, opening up acreage for development along the river.

The cities are preparing another request this spring for federal funds to launch a Broadway bridge effort.

Some Land Park and Southside Park residents have expressed concerns about a Broadway bridge, saying they fear it would bring cut-through commute traffic to their neighborhoods.

That bridge location became less controversial last year, though, when city officials and residents agreed the span would be "neighborhood friendly," designed mainly for use by local drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and buses, not built as an alternative for long-distance freeway commuters who use the nearby Pioneer Bridge.

Mark Abrahams of the Land Park Community Association said he "thought they'd do a little more study before they chose a location." But, he added, a Broadway bridge "could be great" if it helps the city redevelop that end of Broadway. "Great things could happen to upper Broadway. But if they do it wrong, it just becomes a commuter pathway to downtown."

Editor's note: This story was changed Feb. 18 to fix the spelling of the name of Mark Abrahams.

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