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Sulphur Creek Bridge

Traffic crosses the Sulphur Creek Bridge along Main Street. Caltrans plans to replace the historic stone rails on the Sulphur Creek Bridge and the York Creek Bridge because they don't meet modern safety standards.

A handful of St. Helenans urged Caltrans to preserve the historic integrity of two Main Street bridges during upcoming safety upgrades.

The work, scheduled for summer 2024, will require removing and replacing the stone rails of the York Creek Bridge near Beringer Vineyards and the Sulphur Creek bridge near Gott’s, Caltrans officials told a crowd of less than a dozen people during Tuesday’s public meeting at Grace Episcopal Church.

As the most visible part of both bridges, the stone rails are key to their aesthetic value, said Councilmember Paul Dohring.

“Let’s look at what we’ve done in the past to preserve (the rails) to whatever extent we can,” Dohring told Caltrans officials.

Caltrans proposes to keep the old stones intact and give them to the city to re-purpose elsewhere. At about 18 inches wide, the new rails will be narrower than the existing ones, which are three or four feet wide.

St. Helena resident Anthony Micheli asked why Caltrans can’t build reinforced rails and then use the old stones as a veneer to preserve the appearance of both bridges. He predicted that the new veneer preferred by Caltrans, designed to mimic the appearance of the old stones, will quickly fade and “look like crap.”

Micheli also questioned the wisdom of upgrading the York Creek Bridge when the Pratt Avenue intersection just south of the bridge is bad enough to earn a grade of F.

“Why are you doing all this work and not fixing that F intersection?” Micheli asked. “This is kinda stupid, I think.”

Caltrans Project Manager Ahmad Rahimi said he would look into Micheli’s concerns about safety at Pratt Avenue, where the city is already investigating safety improvements. Mayor Geoff Ellsworth asked Caltrans to coordinate with the city so that the two agencies aren’t working at cross-purposes.

Caltrans officials said both bridges fall short of modern safety standards. The new rails will be stronger, safer and narrower. The renovated bridges will also have wider shoulders that meet Caltrans’ standards and might someday accommodate a Class II bike trail if the Napa Valley Vine Trail comes through town.

According to Caltrans, there were 27 accidents and one fatality at the Sulphur Creek Bridge between 2012 and 2015, sometimes knocking stones into the creek below. (The fatality was actually in front of the Merryvale driveway south of the bridge.)

“We’re trying to provide safety for you guys,” said Caltrans Senior Environmental Planner Wahida Rashid. “Now we drive SUVs and trucks, so we have a different standard for railings. We no longer ride horse carts anymore. The world is changing and we need to up our safety game.”

Caltrans is considering two alternatives for the Sulphur Creek Bridge. One option is to widen the northbound side of the bridge by four feet, which would leave enough room to keep two lanes of traffic open during the two to four months of construction. The other option would not widen the bridge and would require one-way traffic control during construction.

Only one design is under consideration at the York Creek Bridge. It would keep traffic flowing in both directions during construction.

The project is still in the early planning phase, with an estimated budget of $4.1 million. It will require a full environmental impact report, a federal environmental assessment, and permits from the Department of Fish & Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The bridges are on the city’s master list of historic resources, so Caltrans will treat them as “historical resources” in evaluating the project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Public comments on the projects should be sent by Nov. 19 to Nathan Roberts, Associate Environmental Planner, P.O. Box 23660, Office of Environmental Analysis, MS-8B, Oakland, CA 94623-0660, or via email to nathan.roberts@dot.ca.gov.

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You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

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