Mission Canyon Bridge | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Two groups of Santa Barbara citizens ― one well-organized and media savvy, the other more scrappy but just as earnest ― are duking it out over the fate of the Mission Canyon Bridge.

In one corner is the Mission Heritage Trails Association (MHTA), an incorporated nonprofit that for the better part of a decade has been pushing for what it describes as much-needed improvements to the traffic flow of the half-mile passage between the Old Mission and Foothill Road. Its members argue the effort must begin with a reengineering ― and potentially complete reconstruction ― of the 130-year-old small stone bridge there, a designated city landmark. Accidents and near misses are a common occurrence along the route due to poor sight lines and an outmoded configuration of busy intersections.

This Tuesday, for instance, a delivery van turned too wide at Alameda Padre Serra and Los Olivos Road, running up against the curb and tipping over. The driver was uninjured, but the incident held up traffic in the area for over an hour. 

“The essential focus of this Association is to improve the safety of walkers, bikers, and vehicle riders traveling this exceptional historical corridor,” said Fred Sweeny, an architect and the president of the MHTA, in a statement. “MHTA is committed to ensuring that any solution to this goal respects all the natural and historic treasures which have helped form today’s Santa Barbara.”

In the other corner is the Coalition to Preserve Mission Canyon, who say the bridge is a structurally sound “historical gem” that ought to be preserved. Widening the bridge and opening the pinch points of nearby roads with a roundabout or other redesigns would speed up traffic and actually make the area less safe, they maintain. Any dangers to drivers and pedestrians could and should be ameliorated with more crosswalks and better signage, not a massive remodel.

“It is deeply alarming that the demolition and replacement of the Mission Creek Bridge is even being seriously considered,” said Coalition member Stephen Sherril in a recent op-ed. “Demolition of the bridge is unquestionably not a necessity — it is clearly the desire of one special interest group. The difference between a necessity and a desire cannot be overemphasized.” The group has also launched a MoveOn.org petition that’s collected 900 of its 1,000 signature goal.

Wedged between the two sides are city planners. They report the bridge ― originally built in 1891 and widened in 1930 to accommodate increasing vehicle traffic ― is nearing the end of its lifespan with a Caltrans rating of 52 out of 100 and a large hole in its underside concrete. Structural supports on the walkway are also deteriorating; a 100-year storm would swamp the relatively narrow arched opening over the creek and sink the bridge under four feet of water; and the potential for a damaging earthquake remains a concern as the bridge sits over a fault line and lacks any seismic retrofitting.

The city and an outside engineering firm have put forth three treatment options for the proposed $11 million state grant-funded project. Two involve reconstructing the bridge with its original stones plus extra support. The third would keep the existing structure but remove a portion of the dirt that currently fills the arch and replace it with concrete. The bridge’s rails would also be widened to create pedestrian walkways on both sides and improve visibility for drivers. 

None of the three options are acceptable to the Coalition, which has offered up its own, less-expensive improvement ideas that would address ADA access as well. Much of their concern also centers on lengthy construction potentially blocking a critical fire evacuation route. “Mission Canyon Road is one of the main escape routes, if not the main one, out of the Canyon,” said nearby resident Peter Marin. “Any work on the bridge requiring a reduction of lanes or a detour will create immense and life-threatening danger should a fire occur anywhere above us during the construction period.”

The MHTA, on the other hand, has the support of nearly all major stakeholders in the area, including schools (Garden Street Academy, Marymount, and Roosevelt), visitor sites (Old Mission Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History), clubs (Rockwood Woman’s Club, Rose Garden) and residential associations (Mission Canyon, Upper East).

While the issue has been simmering ― and occasionally bubbling over ― for many years, it recently reappeared in the public consciousness as the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission prepares to give feedback on the three options. That meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, June 9, and can be viewed at SantaBarbaraCA.gov. It will also be recorded.

Ongoing public input can be provided to city planner Jessica Grant at JGrant@SantaBarbaraCA.gov. And find extensive information on the proposed project at MissionCanyonBridge.com.

Correction: The Pearl Chase Society has not endorsed either group’s position and was removed as a supportive stakeholder.

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