Elected officials have restarted talks about the 19th Street Bridge, a perennially controversial proposal that would connect Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.
County Supervisor John Moorlach quietly revived discussions among council members — one each from Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley — who would have to sign off on the plans.
Bridge advocates say it would help traffic flow throughout the area and could enhance Westside Costa Mesa. Opponents, who have been trying to scrap bridge plans for more than 30 years, argue that it would worsen traffic and noise in residential areas, and would harm sensitive environmental resources.
"As good neighbors, we're going to take a hard look at it," Moorlach said. "We're at least all in the same room, and we're all debating, and listening to all the pros and cons."
The latest talks began in late August when Newport Beach Councilman Steve Rosansky prodded Moorlach to organize a meeting among the four cities' leaders.
Rosansky has long supported building the bridge, and because he'll be termed out in 2012, he decided to push for it now.
"It really opens up a lot of possibilities for making the flow of traffic better for [Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa]," Rosansky said.
Past studies have found that a bridge could relieve pressure on Newport Boulevard, for example, but could bring more traffic to 19th Street and areas near the proposed span.
Two major studies — one in the early 1990s and another in the early 2000s — were quashed after the Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach city councils opposed the idea.
Residents of the Freedom homes, a tract north of 19th Street and west of Placentia Avenue, were staunchly opposed. Besides traffic and noise, they decried the potential demolition of homes needed to widen 19th Street.
But the new Costa Mesa City Council members may be open to the bridge.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer, who has attended the talks with city Chief Executive Tom Hatch, said he thought the county should at least study the proposal to see if it would improve traffic flow, or simply shift problems from some intersections to others. He mentioned current congestion on Victoria Street and Adams Avenue.
"We want some answers," Righeimer said.
The answer is already clear for Huntington Beach environmental activist Gary Gorman, president of Orange Coast River Park, a group advocating for interconnected nature preserves and trails along that section of the Santa Ana River.
"It seems like the only people who want this are politicians or highway planners," he said, speaking for himself, as the group had not yet discussed the bridge. "It would have a serious detrimental effect to the wetlands in the Orange Coast River Park area."
The unannounced talks caught Gorman and other leaders by surprise.
"I thought it was dead," he said.
But Rosansky and Moorlach say the bridge has great potential, and have planned the last of three meetings for next week. After that, they anticipate presenting concepts to the city councils, in hopes of securing their support.
"This is one of those great opportunities," Moorlach said.
The county's plan for arterial highways, developed in the 1950s, shows the 19th Street Bridge and a bridge between Gisler Avenue in Costa Mesa and Garfield Avenue in Huntington. About five years ago, the cities agreed to hold off on the Gisler bridge while they try to improve traffic flow nearby. They decided to try other measures like improving intersections.
Moorlach suggested that the eastern approach to the 19th Street Bridge could be elevated to minimize the impacts to the wildlife along the river bank. But Gorman said that would require expensive restoration of similar land elsewhere.
While funding for the project has not yet been determined, Moorlach said the Orange County Transportation Agency may have some funds available. Measure M funding, the half-cent sales tax used for transportation projects, has been discussed in the past.
Representatives from OCTA and the Orange County Sanitation District have both been attending the discussions. A major water treatment plant on the Huntington Beach side of the bridge would potentially have to cede property to make room for the bridge's connection to Banning Avenue.
Huntington Beach residents who live around Banning Avenue have been some of the loudest protesters during past bridge discussions. They said it would increase traffic along their quiet residential street, making it unsafe for their children to walk to a nearby elementary school.
On the Costa Mesa side, Talbert Regional Park is just north of the proposed extension, and undeveloped Banning Ranch is just south. The Banning Ranch draft environmental impact report didn't consider the 19th Street Bridge.
Calls to Huntington Beach Councilman Don Hansen, who has been attending meetings, were not immediately returned. Fountain Valley Councilman Larry Crandall is also involved in the discussions.