A five-year planning process to reengineer and widen the historic Mission Canyon Bridge and nearby pinch points came to a hard stop Tuesday as the Santa Barbara City Council voted to take a much lighter touch on improving the winding corridor’s walkability and traffic flow.
The decision reverses a previous vote by the 2016 iteration of the council to plow ahead with a bridge and intersection redesign and to pursue federal grant that could have totaled $11 million for the work. That grant money, which had been successfully secured, will now go back to the national Highway Bridge Program as the city starts a new process to construct a separate pedestrian walkway over Mission Creek and make a handful of roadway adjustments.
Today’s councilmembers expressed concern, echoed loudly by neighbors and historic preservationists, that rebuilding the 130-year-old stone bridge and reconfiguring the thoroughfare would greatly diminish the area’s historic character. They said the needed pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements could be achieved without sacrificing the meandering charm of the rural, though heavily trafficked, passage between Old Mission Santa Barbara, the Museum of Natural History, and surrounding neighborhoods.
Transportation planner Jessica Grant said while accidents do occasionally occur there, mainly due to poor sightlines, the section of road “does not rank nearly as high as some other collision-prone corridors” in the city. Adding a pedestrian walkway to the northwest side of the bridge and implementing the road alterations would cost the city approximately $3 million-$4 million in city funds, she said.
Anthony Grumbine, speaking on behalf of the Historic Landmarks Commission, admitted he and his colleagues had to “dodge cars zipping around” when they recently toured the area, but they nevertheless felt that a little work would go a long way in making walkers, bikers, and other users feel more safe. The complete renovation of a city landmark simply wasn’t necessary and definitely not desirable, he said.
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Left unaddressed for now are the seismic retrofits that engineers said were needed for the bridge, part of a critical evacuation route for thousands of residents, to withstand an earthquake of 7.2 or higher. Dace Morgan, hired by city staff to study its structural integrity, said the bridge sits directly atop a fault line and that a strong quake would likely “mobilize” the soil that holds its arch aloft. Yes, it survived the 1925 earthquake, Morgan said, but that occurred way out in the Santa Barbara Channel and wasn’t as violent as the tremblor current safety guidelines anticipate.
Morgan also explained that the bridge’s “sufficiency rating,” which has dropped from 52 to 44 (out of 100) since 2016 and has been repeatedly cited by widening proponents as a reason to rebuild, doesn’t mean the bridge is structurally unsound. It just means it doesn’t conform to modern traffic standards in terms of sightlines, crosswalks, and other metrics, she said. Short of a disaster ― including another debris flow, which a millennium ago created the sandstone boulder landscape of adjacent Rocky Nook Park ― the bridge is in no danger of collapsing anytime soon, said Morgan. But whether it lasts another century or five is anyone’s guess, she said.
During her presentation, Grant diplomatically cited the “mixed opinion” among neighbors for and against complete reconstruction. In reality, the debate between camps over the last five years would at times reach a fever pitch that included ad hominem attacks and profanity-laced letters. Councilmember Kristen Sneddon, who represents the district, noted that the opposing sides actually had the same goal all along ― to improve the safety along the locally beloved corridor. They just had very different ideas for how to get there.
The council directed Grant and her staff to return in the fall with ideas for how to begin the process of designing the pedestrian bridge and other roadway improvements.