O.C. Bridge’s Very Early Demise Makes History : Project: Caltrans wishes someone had complained earlier about the half-finished Santa Ana overpass.


Caltrans officials said Thursday that their plans to demolish a half-finished project that sparked furious community opposition marks a first in state history, and they wish someone had said something about it sooner.

At the request of the Santa Ana School Board, the state Department of Transportation this week agreed to dismantle the half-finished pedestrian bridge over the Santa Ana Freeway. It will spend at least $60,000 to undo $600,000 worth of work.

Both Caltrans and school officials say things never should have got this far. But now the question is one of cost for both sides.


Because the children who would have used the bridge at 20th and Spurgeon streets to get to school on the northeast side of the freeway now will likely be bused, the school district may have to come up with an estimated $80,000 a year for busing. It also could face liability claims if children who walk a circuitous route to school along busy 17th Street are hit by cars, district officials said.

Caltrans has been paying to bus about 170 children to Hoover Elementary School from the lower-income, predominantly immigrant area west of the freeway while construction is underway. School board member Robert W. Balen said the district is hoping to persuade Caltrans to help with the busing until a new elementary school is built on the west side of the freeway, which may take up to three years.

But agency officials say that is unlikely now that the school district has indicated it doesn’t need the bridge.

“We will be phasing out the busing as quickly as possible,” Barry Rabbit, Caltrans deputy district director for construction, said Thursday.

Board members concede the district will feel the pinch of Tuesday’s decision.

“That could be two classroom teachers. That could be field trips for the whole elementary division,” board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji said earlier in the week.

Hundreds of residents on the well-manicured northeast side of the bridge aggressively opposed the project in recent months, fearing the bridge would be a conduit for criminals who live on the west side to cross over onto their placid streets. The $1.3-million bridge was supposed to replace a pedestrian tunnel that closed last year when the freeway was widened.


A majority of west side parents whose children would have used the bridge answered a district poll recently and said they preferred busing. But critics of the movement to kill the project say east side residents’ fears of crime are inflamed. The movement to seal off neighborhood borders in a bid for safety is shortsighted and doesn’t address concerns of the community as a whole, they add.

Local Caltrans officials say the whole mess could have been averted had community members made the extent of their feelings known before construction began last year.

“We have worked in good faith for years, and never once was there a representation from the school board or the city that they didn’t want this or that there was not a need,” said Rabbit, who expects to get final written word from the city and school district by early next week asking Caltrans to call off the project.


Rabbit said a 1989 letter from the school district to the design contractor and a 1993 busing agreement with the district indicate that school officials were well aware of plans for the overcrossing.

And documents show that Caltrans and city officials met with the Northeast neighborhood group two years ago to discuss the overpass. According to minutes of the meeting, plans were moving ahead and state and city officials were talking to the school district about locking the gates at night in an effort to address neighborhood crime concerns.

“Nobody ever said boo about not building it,” Rabbit said. “It wasn’t until the neighbors got excited a few months ago that the school board said they didn’t need it.”


School district officials are just as bitter about the debacle, saying the hot potato never should have landed in their lap. Balen said the school district never received a copy of the environmental impact report, and even if it had, the document made no mention of the overcrossing, which replaced the tunnel.

Caltrans never gave the district the option of calling the project off, said Gaylen Freeman, assistant superintendent for business services.

“We were just told it was happening. We weren’t given an option at the time for input,” he said.

The foot bridge is chalking up nicknames behind the school district’s doors: There’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” for the 1957 Academy Award-winning film in which a bridge is painstakingly constructed only to be blown to bits at the end. And Yamagata-Noji has taken to calling it the “Simon and Garfunkel bridge” for a bridge “over troubled water” made famous by the duo’s ballad.

But Caltrans is trying to look on the bright side.

“We’re looking at it as a cost savings. Money is very tight right now, so if we can save (at least) $300,000, it’ll go back into state funds, and the state can really use that money,” said local Caltrans spokesman Albert Miranda.

“There was a savings in that a decision was reached before additional work was done. Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?”


Balen said that the school district isn’t asking Caltrans to tear down the bridge.

“It is wasteful, there’s no doubt about that,” Balen said. “But I think that’s Caltrans’ decision to tear it down or not. All we indicated in our vote was whether we needed the access or not. It’s completely up to them.

A Caltrans spokesman in Sacramento says the planned demolition marks the first time community outrage has toppled a project that was structurally sound.

The community revolt is rivaled only by a legendary battle in the 1960s to halt construction of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, which was supposed to connect with the Golden Gate Bridge but was halted halfway, said Caltrans spokesman Jim Drago.

But even that project was simply stopped in midroute and not torn down, Drago said. The built portion remained in operation until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake gave critics another shot at removing it.

“This is the first,” Drago said. “Nothing comes to mind where we actually went in there and tore something down once construction was started unless it was for some engineering reasons.”