Caltrans plan to improve the Highway 49 bridge over the Mokelumne

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) plans to upgrade the bridge rails and widen the deck of the Highway 49 Mokelumne River Bridge between Amador and Calaveras counties. The purpose of the upgrade is to meet current crash-safety standards and to make the bridge friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. The plan includes widening the shoulders to four feet and replacing the guard rails, which do not meet modern safety requirements. The estimated cost of the project is $3.914 million, and it’s expected to take 90 working days.

We are pleased to see that Caltrans is invested in making bridges safer for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Overall, when finished this project will be a benefit, but we have some concerns about how the construction may affect local residents, public safety, and river users. There is heavy use of the bridge between our two counties, and Highway 49 is the primary route across the river west of Highway 26.

In early December, Caltrans published its draft California Environmental Quality Act-required analysis, a draft Initial Study with Proposed Negative Declaration. The deadline to comment on the document was January 16, 2020.

After a thorough review of the document, we concluded that Caltrans should make several key changes that would make the construction phase of the project safer and less problematic for locals and visitors. Those changes could also help reduce the disruption of recreational use of the river at Electra Road and the Big Bar Launch site.

We sent a comment letter to Caltrans expressing the concerns and suggestions detailed below. We also notified local CalFire and county officials and asked Caltrans to hold a public meeting in our communities to hear locals’ concerns. As of mid-March, it is unclear if Caltrans will hold a public meeting, especially considering the COVID-19 emergency, but we feel very strongly that the public needs to be able to weigh in on this project before it proceeds. Our primary concerns about the proposed project, and our primary recommendations, are as follows:

  • Traffic delays will be too long and could hamper emergency vehicles. Retired traffic and civil engineer Bob Leitzell of Mokelumne Hill, a Foothill Conservancy director, and retired public works director, recommended against using fixed-time signals for traffic control when construction allows only one-way traffic. Based on Bob’s review, we recommended the use of an actuated signal system that uses sensors to detect vehicles to avoid dead time and that would allow an emergency-vehicle override. An alternative would be to have flaggers during the day and other high-use times, and an actuated signal at night.
  • Damage to rural, county roads from increased use by residents commuting between the two counties for work and shopping, and heavy truck traffic. Those who travel between counties may anticipate traffic delays near the bridge and opt to use another route, likely over Paloma, Gwin Mine, and Middle Bar roads. Those roads are already in terrible condition, and increased traffic would further degrade them. We asked Caltrans to study the effects of increased traffic on alternate routes and mitigate those impacts by providing funding to Amador and Calaveras counties to repair the roads and prepare them for the increased use.
  • Hampered recreational use at Electra Road and Big Bar Launch, especially during holiday weekends and the September Sierra Club Loma Prieta Paddlers Moke Races. BLM manages the Big Bar Launch, which was financed in part by a California Division of Boating and Waterways grant. Big Bar access was secured after long negotiations with the local landowners and nearly 20 years of effort by BLM, American Whitewater, and our organization. It’s the only legal takeout for the popular Electra Run, and we want to ensure reasonable access is maintained. Maintaining access is also a requirement in the DBW grant agreement. The Electra Run is entirely within the reach of the main Mokelumne River, designated a California Wild and Scenic River because of its unique and extraordinary recreational resource values. We would like to see provisions in the final plan that limit construction during high-use times, and/or have a flagger on-site at the bridge at Electra Road and at the entrance and exits to the Big Bar Launch to facilitate river access. Additionally, Caltrans plans to relocate a streamflow gauge downstream of Highway 49 that boaters and dam operators rely on. We want to make sure that the relocation of this equipment is done in a timely and strategic manner. American Whitewater, one of our partners in Mokelumne River access and recreation, expressed similar recreational concerns in their comment letter to Caltrans.
  • Emergency vehicle access, especially wildland fire and ambulance response, could be cut off between counties or slowed by traffic control. The proposed construction period falls within the driest months, during the highest fire danger. Highway 49 is the primary route for fire units to share resources between our two counties. Additionally, Electra Road is a dead-end road. Maintaining ingress for emergency vehicles and egress for residents, visitors, and PG&E staff is a critical public safety issue. We recommended that Caltrans explore the idea of shifting the dates of construction to November through February, which are outside the regular fire season. That would also address concerns with disturbing breeding migratory bird nests (see below) and avoid blocking local river recreation access during the busy spring and summer months. It might also allow for night-time construction, which would reduce traffic delays.
  • Disturbing migratory birds especially swallows that nest on the soffits of the bridge overhangs. It is against the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act to kill or destroy the nests of any migratory bird. Changing the construction period to late fall and winter would mitigate this potential harm by avoiding the swallows’ nesting season.

While the formal deadline to comment on the project has passed, Caltrans staff are still reviewing comment letters. If you have concerns, you can send an e-mail to Caltrans representative Janet Bailey. For more information on the project, contact Shane Dante of our staff at 223-3508 or send him an e-mail.

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Leslie Smith, Sutter Creek, CA: Raised in Washington State, Leslie is a happy California transplant having moved to Sunny Sutter Creek full time in 2020. As a nascent fly fisher and lifelong skier, she is committed to the natural environment and brings extensive organizational and finance experience to the board from a nearly 40 year career in banking.