A Bike Bridge Too Far?

Backers of a bike-pedestrian bridge between Alameda and Jack London Square are looking for creative ways to build it. But the Coast Guard is blocking the way.



Alameda officials say demands by the Coast Guard have made a bike bridge unfeasible.

Photo by Chris Duffey

All it takes is one trip along the narrow two-way bicycle-pedestrian path in the Posey Tube to convince most people to never cross the estuary via this hellish portal again. Unfortunately, the Posey Tube is the only way to cross the estuary by foot or bike from West Alameda.

Caltrans recently widened the footpath by 4 inches, but it’s inaccessible to wheelchair users, and cyclists must still dismount and raise their wheels to allow oncoming travelers to pass by. The path is slightly raised above traffic and shielded by a barrier, but the design does not protect pedestrians and bicyclists from exhaust fumes generated by thousands of vehicles each day as they zoom toward Oakland and Interstate 880 by way of a one-way stretch of Route 260 that also runs through the Posey Tube.

“Most of us take the path only once, when we get desperate,” said BART director Robert Raburn, who test-biked the renovated path recently, when he missed his bus. “The barrier fence is improved, but it’s still a high-anxiety bike ride,” he said. “We’re doing nobody a favor by maintaining such a system.”

“Only for diehards” is how state Assemblymember Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, described the Posey Tube path during a recent interview. “We can do so much better.”

But what does better look like? Seven years ago, the city of Alameda analyzed possible improvements as part of its 2009 Estuary Crossing Feasibility Study. The comprehensive study examined bike shuttles; improved ferry and bus service; Posey Tube modifications; a new tunnel for bicycles and pedestrians; aerial tramways; amphibious vehicles; water taxis; bus-bike barges; an underground extension to BART; and a bicycle-pedestrian bridge. “Obviously, we have challenges,” Bonta said, citing limited options and congested paths for traffic to travel between Alameda’s West End and Oakland. “But a bike-pedestrian bridge over the estuary was the city’s preferred long-term solution.”

Courtesy of Bike Walk Alameda

Activists say a bike bridge should be a top priority.

Since then, the city has made progress on improving the Posey Tube pathway, providing a bike shuttle, and funding a water taxi—upgrades that Alameda officials identified as the preferred short and medium-term improvements. But seven years later, the city has taken no concrete steps toward further exploring the bridge option, and officials say it’s because of the U.S. Coast Guard.

In a September 2008 letter to the city, Coast Guard Bridge Chief David Sulouff stated that any proposed bridge between the Webster-Posey tubes and the Park Street drawbridge must provide hundreds of feet of navigational space—both vertically and horizontally—to ensure that vessels, including the Guard’s large National Security Cutters and crane barges, can safely navigate the structure.

“The Coast Guard isn’t for or against a bridge,” Sulouff said recently in an interview. “Our role is to ensure safe navigation.”

Sulouff further noted that it’s not just the Coast Guard that would be impacted: “it’s any vessel that wants clearance, and sailing vessels are sometimes quite tall.” Coast Guard cutters regularly travel up and down the estuary on their way to and from Coast Guard Island, and the proposed bridge would have to be tall enough to allow cutters and other vessels to pass. As a result, the 2009 study envisioned cyclists and pedestrians accessing a tall bridge via elevator towers.

Bike Walk Alameda President Lucy Gigli recalled that when the city prepared its 2009 Estuary Crossing Study, the bridge option had some navigational constraints that the Coast Guard thought were “too difficult to overcome. But in recent months, we’ve seen that the benefits of a bridge are astronomical for the West End, given the new housing being built and in the pipeline and that the tubes are already almost maxed out during the commute,” Gigli added. “There was a bit of a hiatus on the West End in the last 10 to 15 years, but traffic is beginning to ramp up again.”

Jennifer Ott, the city’s chief operating officer for Alameda Point, noted that there are also 1,800 housing units in the development pipeline, many at Alameda Point.

In light of the city’s impending growth, Raburn believes a bike-pedestrian bridge should be “front and center” on the city’s list of upcoming transportation projects. “But it’s not,” he said. “Instead, we keep running into a buzzsaw that’s basically a lack of interest.”

Frustrated by the city’s lack of enthusiasm and the looming prospect of increasing congestion, advocates with Bike Walk Alameda and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland circulated a petition in May 2016 that urged Alameda and Oakland to “build a bicycle and pedestrian moveable bridge to connect West Alameda with downtown Oakland.” The bridge, the petition argued, would provide 24/7 convenient, enjoyable, reliable access; reduce congestion in the Posey and Webster tubes; provide BART and Amtrak access for Alameda’s West End residents; generate new opportunities on both sides of the estuary; promote healthy lifestyles; and decrease emissions and improve air quality.

Within a few weeks, 1,460 residents had signed the petition.

Gigli said this rapid outpouring of public support helped in conversations with the cities of Alameda and Oakland, the Alameda County Transportation Commission, or ACTC, Caltrans, and both local and federal elected officials, including Rep. Barbara Lee. “Not one person said, ‘This is not a good idea,’ ” Gigli recalled. “A few said, ‘there are obstacles, they are too much trouble, and then there’s the cost.’ But if we sort it out and solve it, we’ve hit the jackpot.”

However, in October, city officials decided to recommend against nominating the proposal for a $250,000 grant from the ACTC—monies that would have been used to evaluate the engineering feasibility of the bridge. “The Coast Guard criteria make the proposed bridge practically infeasible,” Ott said. “And there’s no way to get federal funding for a bridge that would open and close unpredictably, cost $75 million, and be the tallest drawbridge in the world, thanks to Coast Guard requirements. So, my advice was, let’s not spend $250,000 studying more technical solutions, when the problem is the Coast Guard criteria. Instead, can we change those criteria? Can we interpret them creatively?”

Raburn said he thinks a so-called swing bridge that would open laterally rather than vertically is “incredibly feasible,” given the estuary’s changing shipping dynamics. Swing bridges have enabled communities to overcome complex challenges around the globe. They open like a swinging gate allowing vessels to pass, rather than a drawbridge design like the Park Street Bridge. Raburn also noted that the bridge’s $75 million price estimate was based on the Coast Guard’s 2008 criteria and related land acquisition requirements—needs that could change with a different design. Compared to building a second BART tube with a station in Alameda, the costs of building a bike-pedestrian bridge would be a “relatively small investment,” Raburn said. “And by the time a cutter pulls away from the dock on Coast Guard Island, a swing-span bridge would be wide open.”

Coast Guard public information officer Dan Dewel said four major long-range cutters are moored at Coast Guard Island. “And when cutters need repairs, they must take multiple trips up and down estuary to undergo work,” Dewel said. Visiting cutters also come and go about three or four times a year, and smaller Coast Guard cutters, which are based at Yerba Buena Island, patrol the San Francisco Bay. “They can and do come up the estuary, to and from Coast Guard Island, for routine patrols and emergencies.”

Faced with the lack of funding to study the bridge, bike-walk advocates are focusing on securing the support of local, state, and federal officials, and the Coast Guard. “We’re hoping the Coast Guard will go further and, in the spirit of cooperation with the broader community, not just claim the largest navigable area, but something that we can all work with,” said Bike Walk Alameda’s Cyndy Johnson.

But as advocates begin to ponder the possibilities of a swing bridge over the estuary, there’s a bit of historic irony blowing in the wind. That’s because the creation of Coast Guard Island in 1913—and the ensuing need for cutters to be able to access the estuary between the bay and the Park Street drawbridge—led to the eventual demolition of Alameda’s first swing bridge over the estuary and its replacement, first with the Posey Tube, and then the Webster Tube.

Postcard courtest of gary Leonhart at AlamedaInfo.com

Ironically, the creation of Coast Guard Island resulted in the removal of a swing bridge over the estuary.

Moving forward, Bonta said he supports pursuing the bridge concept—a position shared with Raburn, Oakland councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, and Alameda City Councilmembers Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Jim Oddie, and Malia Vella. “My office has offered to help advocates identify funding, at the local, county, and state level—and maybe even the federal government,” Bonta said. “I think there are ways both could be successful: the Coast Guard could move its vehicles, and we could also have a pedestrian/bike bridge.”

Ezzy Ashcraft said city staffers need to be “more open-minded” about the bridge. “Lots of BART and AC Transit riders would welcome this idea,” she said. Like Bonta and Raburn, Ashcraft hopes creative bridge designs can resolve the logjam over the Coast Guard’s navigational criteria.

“But we do need to start with the Coast Guard,” Ashcraft said. “We have a Coast Guard base. We provide a welcoming atmosphere to Coast Guard families. So, perhaps the Coast Guard can help with our traffic congestion problems.”

 

Published online on Jan. 9, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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