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Caltrans gets its way on new Foresthill Bridge railing height

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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It’s not as high as some would like and it’s not as low as it is now, but it looks like the height of the railing on the Foresthill Bridge will be just right for Caltrans. With work slated to start next spring, the Placer County Public Works Department is poised to put a seismic retrofit and repainting project on the Foresthill Bridge out to bid next month that calls for railings 6 feet tall. That comes after early projections of railings that would rise as high as 8 feet – double their current 4-foot height. Public Works Director Ken Grehm said Monday that Caltrans favored the 6-foot height on the railings along the 730-foot-high span because it would allow equipment from its “snooper” bridge-inspection truck to reach over the side. The goal for raising the railing was to provide a safer route for pedestrians and cyclists along the walkway across the bridge, Grehm said. The 6-foot height would still provide that extra level of safety, he said. But Eric Peach, a board member with Auburn’s Protect American River Canyons, said that 8 feet would be ideal in terms of keeping people from jumping off the side or throwing things to the river canyon below. “It’s too bad they can’t find a way to extend it over what they’re planning,” Peach said. Peach said he’d be surprised if Caltrans didn’t have other equipment used on other bridges that could be brought to Auburn for inspections on spans with 3-foot railings. “I though 8 feet would be a minimum height,” Peach said. “At 6 feet, they need to angle the bars at the top to make it more difficult to climb or throw things over.” The bridge – 37 years old and the highest in the state – has been the scene of about 50 people falling to their deaths. Suicide hotline phones have been installed at the bridge, just east of the Foresthill Road-Interstate 80 intersection. But the bridge railings have remained at 4 feet. For Protect American River Canyons, the issue of rail height not only focuses on suicide prevention, it’s also a matter of environmental preservation. The organization has twice-yearly canyon cleanups and takes out tons of garbage, much of it thrown from the deck of the bridge. The next cleanup will be Sept. 25. Peach said he’s hoping the county will be open to more discussion on railing height or adding curved bars at the top. Grehm said that the project – estimated to cost $70 million – is getting significant interest from national and multinational firms. The contract was to be posted for bidding in September but is now being put off until October because of technical questions from prospective contractors, he said. After bids are received, they’ll be analyzed, with an award recommendation targeted to go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval by the end of the year, Grehm said. State and federal funding is paying for all but $3 million of the project. With winter weather precluding any major work taking place, the project should begin in earnest in the spring, Grehm said. After that, the project should be completed in 2½ years.