Oral Testimony on the Proposed Noyo Bridge to the California Coastal Commission

Date: March 11, 1999
(Notes on testimony revised April 6, 1999)

Vince Taylor

Re: Application by the California Department of Transportation

Permit Numbers:  A-1-FTB-99-06 and 1-98-100

Introductory Note

The following served as the basis for my oral presentation to the California Coastal Commission.  Although witnesses were generally limited to 2 minutes, I was asked by Mark Massara, attorney for the Sierra Club/Friends of Fort Bragg, to assist him in his presentation.  As an appellant in the case, he was allotted fifteen minutes, a majority of which he gave to me.  Therefore, I was able to present the material below almost in full.  I did not read this but made a presentation based on this material.  Although the testimony below is not a transcript, it presents reasonably accurately what I said to the Commissioners.

The vote of the Commission was 5 to 4 to deny the appeal and approve the Caltrans permit.  Considering that the Commission staff recommended approval of the permit, this was a surprisingly close vote – although very disappointing.  Especially disappointing was the “yes” vote of Andrea Tuttle, who lives in Arcata and should have been sympathetic to a similar rural community attempting to prevent destruction of its coastal values.


In the present case, you Coastal Commissioners face a fundamental challenge to your authority.  Caltrans has from the beginning of this project exhibited complete contempt for the provisions of California Coastal Act.  When you vote on this matter, you will decide whether an agency of the state of California can use its own internal regulations to thwart the intent of the California Coastal Act.

The Noyo Harbor is a coastal resource of exceptional value.  Caltrans draft EIR said, “Views of the ocean are spectacular while driving over the bridge.”  Views of the harbor from the bridge are equally striking. Yet, Caltrans initial design for its proposed bridge adhered strictly to its statewide “Design Standards Manual,” which sets the standards for urban freeways freeways.  It made absolutely no deviations from those standards in order to better protect and preserve the Noyo coastal treasures.

You will hear from Caltrans about how responsive they have been to public concerns, but don’t be fooled.  The only substantive change they’ve made is to substitute for the solid concrete railing initially proposed what they misleadingly term a “see-through” railing. As Figure 2 of my written testimony shows, it should be termed a see-almost-nothing railing.

The fundamental problem with the bridge is its excessive width, which causes it to crowd up against surrounding buildings and makes it impossible to preserve the present views. Its design had, and still has, not just four traffic lanes and two sidewalks, but an unused 12’ center median and two eight foot shoulders.  Including sidewalks, the proposed bridge is 87 feet wide, wider than the Golden Gate Bridge[1], almost completely filling its right of way and coming within 10 feet of a restaurant and motel on the seaward side of the bridge.

Caltrans has adamantly resisted all requests to consider narrowing the bridge, including those made by the Fort Bragg Planning Commission and your own staff.  It has given one reason after another for its refusal to lessen the width. As each of these has been shown to be false, it always has a final reason: “Caltrans Requirements.” 

Can we do away with the 8-foot shoulders, which make it impossible to maintain the views of the harbor and ocean?  “No, eight foot shoulders are a Caltrans requirement for all new bridges.”

Can we eliminate the center 12’ median, which would not used at all?  “No, it maintains the alignment of the roads on either end.”

Can we have an iron railing?  “No, it doesn’t meet our standards.”

The refrain of “It doesn’t meet Caltrans Requirements” has been used to beat down any effort to get a bridge that better preserves coastal values.

This refrain, however, didn’t work with the Fort Bragg Planning Commission, which voted last December 4 to 1 to deny Caltrans a permit for the bridge because of its gross violations of Fort Bragg’s Local Coastal Program.

Then, rather than beginning a dialogue with the Planning Commission, Caltrans appealed the permit to the City Council and threatened the city with of loss of the new bridge if the Caltrans design was not immediately approved.  Rick Knapp, Caltrans District Director, made this threat very explicit in a letter to the Mayor of Fort Bragg dated January 13, 1999:

If we cannot get the necessary permits to build this project, we will have to reconsider retrofit of the existing bridge… If we expend $8 million on the existing bridge, you cannot expect the bridge to be replaced or improved in the next 20 years.  If it is ever replaced in the future, it is conceivable that only a two-lane bridge would be provided…

The Caltrans threat was quickly spread throughout Fort Bragg in newspaper articles and letters and in a door-to-door petition campaign.  The message was clear, “Support Caltrans or lose the new bridge!”  Almost everyone in Fort Bragg wants an earthquake-safe bridge with more traffic capacity; thus Caltrans’s fear campaign was very effective in marshalling political support for its bridge design. 

Today you from many people who were influenced by Caltrans’s campaign.  I plea with you Commissioners: “Don’t be taken in by the results of Caltrans’s fear campaign.” Caltrans’s threats are false.  It very much wants to build a new bridge. Eighty percent of a new bridge will be paid from federal funds; whereas it would need to pay out of its own budget for the entire cost of a retrofit and future maintenance. A new bridge is Caltrans most cost-effective solution. But,  they want to build it their way, not the way that would best meet the mandate of the California Coastal Act.

Starting last October, and detailed in my written testimony here, I proposed to Caltrans an alternative design that would narrow the bridge to four traffic lanes and two eight foot sidewalks. The main vehicle safety barrier would be placed next to the vehicle lanes, as on the Golden Gate Bridge, protecting the pedestrians and cyclists on the sidewalk and permitting use of an outside iron railing of the type used on the Golden Gate.

This modified design would give a more traditional feeling to the bridge. It would completely preserve the existing views, as shown in Figure 1 of my written testimony to the Commission. (Verticals are omitted because they would be invisible to moving drivers.) It would double the space between the bridge and the North Cliff Motel and Cliff House Restaurant, thereby greatly reducing the impact of the bridge on its setting. 

As I detail in my written testimony, Caltrans has no substantive grounds for refusing to consider this alternative design: It is fully safe for vehicles, safer for pedestrians and cyclists, allows two-way traffic to be maintained during construction, and meets future traffic needs as well as the Caltrans proposal.  The only reasons for denying this much superior design are Caltrans internal regulations!

What you Commisioners need to understand is that all of the Caltrans Design Requirements embedded in the Noyo Bridge can be changed at the will of Caltrans.  The Caltrans Design Manual documents the straightforward process for requesting design exceptions.  For the Noyo Bridge, design exceptions require only the signatures of the Caltrans Project Manager and the Caltrans Project Development Coordinator for the district.


When Caltrans argues that it can’t change the bridge design to meet Coastal Act requirements, what it is really saying is that it values its own internal rules and regulations more than it does the requirements of the Coastal Act. 

Commissioners, the time has come serve notice to Caltrans that you will not allow them to ignore the requirements of the Coastal Act. 

For the sake of the north coast and all of California, please deny this permit. 

[1] The traffic lanes plus sidewalks of the Golden Gate Bridge total 82 feet.  The total width equals 90’, because the cable towers extend beyond the normal sidewalks, but the smaller dimension is the appropriate one to compare to the Noyo Bridge width.