For nearly two decades, the city of Alameda has worked to achieve a seemingly uncontroversial goal: construction of a pedestrian bridge across the Oakland estuary.
But since its conception, the project has faced concerns about funding, costs and location. And now, as city staff prepare to present an update to the City Council next week, the bridge faces a new, surprising opponent: the recreational boating community, which fears the bridge could effectively lock them in the estuary.
“It’s kind of like saying, ‘We’re going to put a drawbridge on the road out of your housing development,’” said Winston Bumpus, a board member of the Recreational Boaters of California. “That’s not optimal.”
While boaters fear the loss of their freedom of movement in the estuary, bicyclist organizations see the bridge as a boon for the region and a far safer connection across the waterway. The bicyclist-versus-boater conundrum speaks to the challenges of navigating competing interests in a hyper-developed region, and the hurdles to achieving infrastructure projects even those as seemingly innocuous as a pedestrian bridge.
The bridge debate is also a microcosm of the broader challenges across the Bay Area as officials attempt to connect a new era of waterfront communities to inland economic centers, and each other.
According to Bumpus, the boating community’s primary concern is the height of the bridge. To accommodate all boat traffic in the estuary, a bridge would have to be over 170 feet high, or about as tall as a 14-story building. That would allow even the large Coast Guard Cutters, which are stationed in the estuary, to pass through unimpeded, though ramps leading to such a bridge would be wildly impractical, city officials acknowledge.
Instead, they are considering drawbridge designs that, when lowered, would rise between 30 and 70 feet above the water. Still, boaters fear a drawbridge could also pose serious navigational problems, creating a back-up of boats waiting for the bridge to open. There are a number of marinas in the estuary, including the Encinal Yacht Club, whose primary means of accessing the bay would be under the proposed bridge.
“You can go down there with a time-lapse camera, you’ll see all the boats going in and out with a mast bigger than 30 feet,” Bumpus said. “We would support other alternatives.”
Historically, much of the Bay shoreline has been surrounded by industry. But now, across the region, industrial or military waterfront areas are being developed as mixed-used housing. The same is true in Oakland and Alameda, where numerous developments are planned or underway in waterfront locations like Encinal Terminals and Brooklyn Basin, each of which promises to add thousands of units to the region.
“This is not just an Alameda and Oakland phenomenon. So much of the region’s new housing and commercial development is located on the waterfront,” said Emily Loper, vice president of Public Policy at the Bay Area Council, a public policy nonprofit.
But many of those new developments, in places where housing has never been before, will require infrastructure to connect them with existing services. In Oakland and Alameda, that has created a rare scenario in which even boaters and bicyclists are competing for space.
City planners and transportation advocates say the bridge would help the city reduce congestion and meet its climate and air quality goals. It would connect people with jobs and businesses. And it would provide another route between downtown Oakland and Alameda, which currently requires people to travel miles to a bridge on the east side of the island, or brave the Posey Tube, a squalid tunnel with a three-foot wide sidewalk.
The proposed bridge “is the best way to knit together the two cities,” said Rochelle Wheeler, a senior transportation coordinator with the city of Alameda.
Although one solution is to raise the bridge high enough for boats to pass through, a higher bridge would be more physically challenging for walkers and cyclists, potentially limiting the number of people willing to use it. Although bike advocates note that they too would be left on either side of the bridge, waiting for boats to pass, they say the bargain is worth it.
“Waiting is not always awesome, but if that creates better air quality, I think that’s something we should all be aligned with,” said Justin Hu-Nguyen, the co-executive director of People and Operations with Bike East Bay, a local bicycling nonprofit. “Everyone is giving a little bit in this project.”
City officials, who have still not determined a final design, or even final start and end points, are confident they can find a solution that works for everyone.
Until the bridge quandary is resolved, the city of Alameda has established a pilot water shuttle program to ferry people across the water from Jack London Square to Bohol Immigrant Circle Park beginning this spring. Just last week, the city posted on Facebook that it had received the vessel, which they have affectionately named Woodstock.
Some boaters who question whether the bridge is worth the trouble — if it will get enough bicycle and pedestrian traffic, for instance, to justify its construction — believe water taxis should serve as the long-term solution to the connectivity problem.
But for now, Wheeler said, the water taxi will not replace bridge plans, regardless of how successful the pilot may be. Bridges, she says, are open 24/7, can last for a century, and don’t require their funding to be renewed every few years.
And so a years-long debate will enter another decade, inching toward a solution that advocates hope will serve as a key connector in a future East Bay.
“We’re working in a constrained area, we’re trying to balance a lot of needs,” Wheeler said. “But we want to keep moving this project forward.”