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Island Talkback: The bridges of Alameda County

Submitted by on 1, August 13, 2010 – 4:45 amOne Comment

A proposal by county officials to dramatically reduce the number of hours Alameda’s three drawbridges are staffed – and to require four hours’ notice from anyone who needs a bridge lifted when they aren’t staffed – has drawn the ire of mariners and their supporters Island-wide. County officials maintain that reducing staffing will help them save money, but boaters fear that the move could jeopardize safety and access.

Alameda County Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker is making the case for the county, below; Tom Charron puts in a word for Alameda and its boating community.

If you want to weigh in on the proposal, you’ve got until August 25 to do so; we’ve got more information on this story and how you can get involved here.

From Alice Lai-Bitker:

There is misinformation about the proposal to maintain accessibility to the Estuary bridges by boaters. Let me be very clear. The proposal under consideration by the U.S. Coast Guard will NOT impact the public safety or emergency response for Alameda residents. I am disturbed to know some residents are worried that homeowners along the estuary will not get emergency services. This is a ridiculous speculation.

In early 2009, this issue surfaced when, in order to balance its budget, the state threatened to the take $2.5 million used to operate the Estuary bridges from the county. This action would have crippled the county’s ability to operate the bridges on a 24/7 basis as federal regulations currently require.

I initiated an open process to find a solution which included public forums; working with elected officials and city staff; and meeting with the Bay Planning Coalition, business owners along the Estuary, boat owners, and yacht clubs.

With the county and city under budgetary stress, all solutions had to be seriously considered. One option was to modify bridge operations. Utilization data show a 69 percent decrease in vessel traffic from 1982 to bridge openings in 2009. The bridges never opened on 75 days in 2009. These trends support modifying the current hours of operation.

A proposal was submitted to the Coast Guard to permit the bridges to be closed in the DOWN position during the hours of 4:30 p.m. to 9 a.m. The bridges will continue to be accessible to boaters with a four-hour notice to the Coast Guard. The general public will continue to use all estuary bridges with no impact to emergency services.

Operating the bridges is an unfunded mandate the federal government handed to the county. Boating is part of Alameda’s cultural identity — I understand the concern about modifications to bridge operations. However, it is incumbent upon me to make sure our tax dollars are spent wisely and our local government seeks cost-effective ways to maintain public services in these challenging economic times. I believe we have done that with the proposal under review by the federal regulators.

From Tom Charron:

The matter is not a simple issue of economics. Many emergency, safety and access issues play a part in any reasonable person’s plan for reducing bridge tender staffing.

It is important to understand that the county held no public meetings with recreational mariners, owners of waterfront properties on the Estuary or the general public prior to official submission of this request to the U.S. Coast Guard in July of 2009!

Alice Lai-Bitker did hold a meeting with the maritime community at the Aeolian Yacht Club in April, nine months after the county’s final proposal was submitted to the Coast Guard. At that meeting, mariners were told that the issue was in the hands of the Coast Guard and that the county would not alter the proposal pending that agency’s rejection.

What follows here are some very important reasons for rejection of the proposal which were submitted to the Coast Guard. The City of Alameda has also submitted a request for denial approved by the City Council on July 27, which well outlines emergency and other reasons for denial.
Needs of mariners are not met by reduction of bridge tender staffing. It will be regularly impossible for sailboaters (and many powerboaters) to meet scheduled openings using a four-hour window of notification. Sailboats on San Francisco Bay cannot time their arrivals from four hours out with sufficient accuracy to arrive at requested times. Over 220 Estuary water/dock parcel owners east of the Park Street Bridge will have severe restrictions on their access to the eastern Oakland Estuary and San Francisco Bay.

A reduction of hours has been proposed during weekend times of highest demand for recreational boaters. Fifty-two percent of all openings occur on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Provision for 24-hour security and protection is not proposed. Leaving these important arteries of transport unmanned 69 percent of each day begs vandalism and severe destruction possibilities.

There’s no provision for immediate fireboat access to waterfront fires east of the Park Street Bridge or for the emergency exit of WETA ferry vessels dispatched to back up commuter ferries on San Francisco Bay or during an earthquake, fire or other natural catastrophe. (WETA vessels dock between the Park Street and Miller-Sweeney bridges and thus are effectively ‘landlocked’ by this proposal).

The driving goal of this proposal is fiscal savings. According to federal regulations, cost savings to the bridge owner is never a valid consideration for non-staffing of bridges.

As maritime recreational users, it is our desire to keep the bridges staffed at times of highest usage of the waterway. We desire to work with the county to reduce its need to staff them during times of minimal need. However, we also seek to preserve the bridges’ security and emergency capacity, and commercial and recreational access.

The county can submit a revised proposal which meets the needs of the maritime community by working with commercial and recreational users, WETA and the City of Alameda to craft a proposal based on appropriate data and consideration of the needs of all Estuary users.

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