In an unusual exercise in direct democracy, California's typically stodgy transportation agency has asked residents to decide what color to paint one of the capital's most visible public works--the sprawling Tower Bridge spanning the Sacramento River.
Caltrans is holding an election to let residents within a 35-mile radius select from among three paint schemes to replace the faded ochre hue that has adorned the 737-foot-long structure for a quarter of a century.
Voting started last week, with ballots cast over the Internet or via telephone. At the start of the weekend, more than 36,000 people had weighed in. Officials predict as many as 200,000 votes before the balloting concludes at midnight Jan. 31.
Like any good election, the race is neck-and-neck.
As of Sunday evening, both the all-gold scheme and the green-gold-silver ensemble had identical 46% tallies. The other choice, burgundy-silver-gold, is running a poor third.
The results will be announced with fanfare at the base of the bridge on Feb. 4. In the meantime, folks all over town are doing a fair amount of yammering about the quest to pick a bridge color.
Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo said she has been stopped on the street and in elevators by constituents eager to offer their pick. "People are engaged," said Fargo, who admits to preferring the all-gold scheme. "This is Sacramento's gateway. There's an emotional attachment to this bridge."
A local radio talk show host has suggested an alternative color suitable for these patriotic times: red, white and blue.
Bridge, Capitol Dome Are Most Photographed
Meanwhile, Caltrans has been hit by a plethora of pithy e-mails. One woman questioned why the agency didn't consider a mix of mauve and chartreuse. Another, noting the flurry of corporate names foisted on big-city athletic stadiums these days, suggested the painting project be underwritten by big business. Call it the Krispy Kreme Tower Bridge, for instance, or maybe Carmichael Honda Span.
The bridge itself, of course, had no comment. But its reputation speaks volumes.
Built in the mid-1930s in the depths of the Great Depression, the 160-foot-high span is the western gateway to the capital city, stretching across a lazy bend of the river like some twin-humped steel camel. At night, with spotlights illuminating its double towers, the bridge is one of the most visible structures on the horizon.
"When the fog is in, with the symmetry of the lights on the river, it's just magic," said Chuck Dalldorf, who resides in a riverfront high-rise facing the span.
The bridge also shares a distinction with the golden dome of the state Capitol as one of the most-photographed spots in the city. And when the hometown Kings professional basketball team make it onto national TV, the blimp shots typically dwell on the Tower Bridge.
Ed Astone has worked in the bridge's shadow for 37 years, since the day he took the job of managing Sacramento's historic Old Town. These days, sign boards announcing the vote are going up on the riverfront tourism district. Astone admits to feeling like a man watching a dowdy friend finally upgrading to a new suit of clothes.
"It's a funky-looking thing," he said. "But I'm a funky-looking thing, so I can relate to that. I was born about the same time it opened. So I have a certain affinity with it."
Though it lacks the majesty of the Golden Gate, the bridge still holds a firm spot in the hearts of capital denizens. Locals and tourists delight at what Astone calls "a little part of the river choreography," as the bridge's 209-foot-long center span is hoisted simultaneously up the two towers to let paddle-wheelers and tall-masted sailboats pass underneath.
The idea for the public vote came right from the top.
Caltrans director Jeff Morales was in a meeting when District 3 director Jody Lonergan mentioned the bridge-painting project. Lonergan noted that she planned to ask leaders of Sacramento and West Sacramento, just across the river, to help pick a color. Morales countered with the idea of a public vote.
"We kind of ran with it," Lonergan said.
9 Color Schemes Narrowed to Just 3
Nine potential color schemes had been suggested by the Caltrans "structures aesthetics unit," a tiny arm of the giant agency.
Among the initial paint possibilities were a solid green, solid burgundy and the bridge's original 1935 color of silver. Also on the list were a variety of color combinations.
Local officials helped narrow it down to the final three.
The all-gold is a more lustrous variant on the current ochre color and an ode to the area's Gold Rush past. The green scheme picks up the foliage of the riverbanks and the muddy green waters. The burgundy reflects the red of the river paddle boats and the brick of Old Town.
Lonergan hopes the vote, a first for Caltrans, will engage the public in a process in which it typically lacks a say.
"People are having fun with it," she said. "They'll think of it as their bridge when it's painted."
Having a stake in the structure also might make the painful traffic delays during the painting project a bit more palatable.
At times, whole lanes will be closed as Caltrans crews strip down rusty portions to bare metal, then put on primer and two final coats of paint.
Environmental concerns will complicate the process, as painters labor inside an enclosed, plastic-tarped area to prevent the toxic, lead-based paint from flecking off into the river.
With such precautions, the painting job will stretch over 15 months and cost $3.5 million. For comparison's sake, the bridge was built in about a year at a cost of $994,000 in 1930s dollars.
The Web site for the project is http://www.towerbridge.dot.ca.gov, though voting is limited to people who have a Sacramento-area ZIP Code.
'This is Sacramento's gateway. There's an emotional attachment to this bridge.'