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At Friday's groundbreaking for the replacement Maxwell Bridge over the Napa River, officials said the new span couldn't happen soon enough.

The existing bridge, built in 1949, was adequate in its day, but now it's a major bottleneck for highway and river traffic and flood water.

Four lanes of Imola Avenue traffic are funneled into two lanes at the bridge. Big boats have to give 72-hour notice so Caltrans can raise it. Pedestrians and bicyclists are herded onto a narrow outrigger on the north side only.

Come November 2005, the $40 million replacement bridge should improve life for practically every mode of transportation, said Larry Pollard, the city's assistant public works director.

Motorists will zip across on four lanes. There will be eight-foot lanes in each direction for bicyclists and pedestrians. Boats will have a 60-foot clearance. And the Napa Valley Wine Train will go under the eastern approach, not through it.

"Talk about a project that impacts lots of things in a positive manner, this is it," Pollard said. "It's a heck of a project."

The city will be getting a span that will be as beautiful as it is functional, Pollard said.

Instead of today's erector-set bridge, which goes up and down with the occasional passing boat, the new span will have more in common with the Butler Bridge at Highway 29's Southern Crossing, Pollard said.

"It will be an elevated skyway, with a smooth, long arch over the river," he said. "I think it will be a little more graceful, with more lighting and pedestrian-bicyclist facilities that the other doesn't have."

Although a Caltrans bridge, the project was put together by the city of Napa working under a tight deadline so as to not delay the Napa River Flood Control Project.

Half of the new span will begin construction this month about 100 feet north of the Maxwell Bridge. By October 2004, traffic will be shifted onto the two new lanes, the old bridge will be torn down and the final two lanes built.

Unlike the Highway 29/Trancas interchange project in north Napa, there should be minimal disruption to traffic on Imola Avenue during construction, said Ahmad Rahimi, Caltrans' project manager.

"This is the project that almost didn't happen," said Mike Zdon, executive director of the Napa County Transportation Planning Agency.

It got state approval last November, just beating the state financial crisis that is delaying billions of dollars' worth of highway projects across California, he said.

Caltrans is contributing $20 million to the project, with Sen. Barbara Boxer getting an $8 million federal allocation that made a world of difference, Pollard said.

Without the federal money, the old bridge might have been left in place and a second two-lane span built to make Imola four lanes, he said.

Napa is putting $3.5 million into the project, with county flood control contributing $5 million, Pollard said.

Because this bridge will be part of the San Francisco Bay Trail system, the state kicked in $300,000 so full-size pedestrian lanes can be built, Pollard said.

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If it weren't part of the Bay Trail, the bridge likely would have had narrow lanes for pedestrian and bike traffic, he said.

The state awarded another $170,000 for upgraded lighting. This will be a well-lit bridge, its outlines visible at night, Pollard said.

With the present lift bridge, tall boats have to call Caltrans three days in advance to arrange for the bridge to be raised for passage into downtown, Pollard said.

Without this hurdle, boaters should come upriver in greater numbers, he predicted.

The Maxwell Bridge is one of seven bridges that will be replaced by the flood control project, said Ken Slavens, the mayor of St. Helena who serves as chair of the Transportation Planning Agency.

Because the new span will be 1,700 feet long, rising 60 feet over the river, it will eliminate a bottleneck that traps flood water. The deck of the new bridge will be about as high as the bottom of the concrete counterweights on the present bridge, Pollard said.

C.C. Meyers Inc. of Rancho Cordova is the general contractor, bidding $28.4 million or 21 percent less than the state estimate. "Sometimes in depressed economic times it's the best time to build," Zdon said.

Currently, drilling equipment and cranes are on site in preparation for burrowing deep under the river for a Napa Sanitation District high-pressure sewer line that has to be moved to make room for the new bridge.

Kevin Courtney can be reached at 256-2217 or at kcourtney@napanews.com

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