Foresthill Bridge starts $65 million retrofit

Tourist magnet, engineering marvel remains open, attracts a crowd on Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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As the fog receded from the American River canyon on a holiday Monday, pigeons perched on the Foresthill Bridge pedestrian guardrail were giving way to a stream of human visitors. With wisps of fog curling around the top of the canyon rim in the distance and the midday winter sun reflecting off the Middle and North Forks of the American River at the confluence, Los Angeles residents Helen and Matt Liao stood in the middle of the bridge and marveled at the view. Standing 730 feet above the river, they viewed the canyon from the deck of a bridge that’s the highest in California and fourth highest in the nation. “It’s beautiful,” Helen Liao said. “The scenery is much better than the Golden Gate Bridge.” Matt Liao said he had been visiting a relative in Davis, found a photo of the Foresthill Bridge on a Yahoo site and decided to take a detour to Auburn before heading back to Los Angeles. With directions after stopping for gas at the Foresthill exit, the Liaos were soon marveling at the view, while several other visitors walked along the span on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. A magnet for sightseers, the bridge is about to be re-painted and bolstered to meet increased seismic safety requirements at a cost of $65 million. On Monday, security fencing and trailers at staging areas on both sides of the bridge had been installed. Work later this month will prepare the bridge for traffic staging and work on the abutments at either end of the bridge. Over the spring, the Placer County Public Works Department anticipates most of the work will center on providing access for the contractor to perform the work, including installation of work platforms under the bridge. The pedestrian railing will also be replaced on the side of the road pedestrians on the bridge will be required to use, raising it from 4 feet to 6½ feet. Not all bridge visitors on Monday were walkers. Auburn’s Kim Sproul uses the span as part of a 7-mile run in and out of the canyon. She’s been running the trails for 20 years and hadn’t earlier known about the multi-million-dollar project now taking shape. “Who has that money?” was Sproul’s response to the cost of construction over the next three years. As well as the $58.4 million contract to Golden State Bridge Inc., federal and state funding will also pay for a $6.89 million contract with The Hanna Group for construction management, inspection and materials testing. Sproul said that while the cost is high: “I’m all for keeping the bridge.” “It’s gorgeous,” Sproul said. “It’s been in a couple of movies and it’s free.” “I’ll take a million of that,” bridge visitor Mike Kuchenthal said, when told about the price for the new paint job and a seismic retrofit. Among the challenges for the project is keeping lead paint applied almost four decades ago from drifting into the canyon. Plans are to encase any areas to prevent dust from flying as the paint is removed. Kuchenthal said he’d driven across the Foresthill Bridge many times, but with a visitor from Reno in tow, thought Monday was a good opportunity to walk across the span for the first time. Matt Watkins was on his way from Sacramento to the Foresthill area and decided to stop at the bridge for his first walk across in more than 30 years. While the bridge was constructed to provide a route for vehicles over what was supposed to be a reservoir created by the never-constructed Auburn dam, Watkins said it’s too valuable to abandon. He recalled the time in the early 1970s when he fell out of a tree while living in Foresthill, fractured his skull and ended up paralyzed for more than a year. The bridge was completed in 1973. With the old route along Old Foresthill Road taking nearly an hour more each way, Watkins credits the quicker route over the new bridge with probably saving his life when his parents drove him to Auburn. “The bridge has made a big difference, and it opened up the Foresthill area,” he said. “It’s worth the money to fix it up.”