HALF MOON BAY -- Downtown merchants in this sleepy coastal town are seething after the City Council voted to demolish and replace a historic bridge that connects their shops and restaurants to state Highway 92, the primary conduit for visiting Peninsula motorists.
Business owners claim taking down the Main Street Bridge could amount to a devastating disruption on the heels of the national recession and recent sales tax hikes that gave Half Moon Bay one of the highest rates in California. They furiously lobbied the city to repair, not replace, the 113-year-old bridge, even compiling a 1,400-signature petition. But the council declined after a long and contentious public meeting.
Betsy del Fierro, who owns It's Italia, a restaurant one block south of the bridge, said she fears the project, estimated to take four to six months between spring and fall, will drastically reduce vehicle traffic on Main Street. With the bridge closed, she says, motorists will be forced to loop around to the downtown strip via state Highway 1 -- or go somewhere else.
"We've come to the conclusion that we don't have a voice. It's their voice," del Fierro said of the council. "We feel we've put our hearts on the chopping block and they've come down with the cleaver."
Vice Mayor John Muller argues that, after studying the issue for several years, a majority of the council decided the bridge was too cracked and worn to be safely fixed. The 24-foot-wide span over Pilarcitos Creek has been rated functionally obsolete and structurally deficient by Caltrans engineers, according to a city staff report.
The council opted 4-1 last week for a new, wider bridge. Councilman Allan Alifano provided the lone "no" vote.
"The decision that we made is for the future health and safety of this community," Muller said Friday, adding that the city will explore all options for alleviating the impact on merchants, including detour signs. "We're probably three years in the planning and environmental review process. It's not like it's coming down next week."
Staff members gave the council nine options for addressing the problem. The council chose an option that calls for all pedestrian and vehicle traffic to be diverted during construction, but requested that project consultants study ways to provide some limited access across the creek. Ross Guehring, spokesman for the city, clarified Friday that the consultant will look into installing a temporary bridge. The project will cost about $6 million, with a federal grant paying for 88 percent.
Some business owners claim the council has never adequately explained why the reinforced-concrete bridge cannot be safely repaired. And they question whether the city is poised to violate its own policies for historic structures.
An attorney for Carl Hoffman, owner of Half Moon Bay Feed and Fuel, and the nonprofit Committee for Green Foothills wrote a letter to the city noting city code requires that, before demolishing a historic structure, property owners must demonstrate that "repairs or stabilization are not feasible."
That issue will be evaluated, Guehring said, during environmental review of the project. Muller dismissed the letter's claim, saying, "That's their opinion."
Committee for Green Foothills got involved in the bridge controversy because it's a coastal land-use issue and Pilarcitos Creek is sensitive habitat, said Lennie Roberts, the environmental group's legislative advocate. She said the council's decision could be appealed to the California Coastal Commission. The merchants will meet soon to discuss their options, including a lawsuit.
"I just think they made a really ill-advised decision," Roberts said of the council. "In the long run I think that they will wind up deciding to repair it, but it may take awhile."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.