For those of you looking forward to the nice, straight road between O’Neals and North Fork with the completion of the Road 200 project, there will still be one little snag in your commute. The bridge over Fine Gold Creek is not part of the project.
“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have the funding needed to include the bridge replacement as part of this project,” said Jared Carter, Deputy Road Commissioner for Madera County. “It’s the last piece of the puzzle in this build-out of the entire stretch of Road 200 from HIghway 41 all the way to North Fork.”
Though the plans for this second phase of the project did not include the bridge, Carter says his department is working to get funding in place for that final puzzle piece.
“There is federal bridge program money available for bridge replacement, so we’re looking hard at those options. It’s definitely high on our radar.”
Those familiar with the road know that the north-bound approach to the Fine Gold Creek bridge is at about a 90-degree angle, and is a 25 mile-per-hour corner.
“It’s going to be very costly to replace that bridge,” said Carter. “Due to the fact that it is at such a sharp angle and needs to be straightened out, it’s going to require a much longer bridge to span that crossing. My guess is that the reason it was built at the angle it is now, was the cost involved at the time.”
The Road 200 project is scheduled to be completed in mid-November, but putting a time-line on the bridge replacement is a bit more complicated.
“First we have to get funding lined up. That’s the first step. We are about to start work on the Project Study Report, where we will be looking at all the options in terms of alignment and impact.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the Road 200 project, it has been on the books since the early 1990’s. When the work was finally started in 2008, it was supposed to be all one project, from Spring Valley School to Fine Gold Creek, Carter said. But environmental issues caused them to have to split the project into two phases. There were elderberry bushes in the project area.
“Elderberry bushes can be killer for mountain projects,” said Carter. “Technically, it’s not the bush that’s the issue, it’s the beetle.”
The valley elderberry longhorn beetle (VELB) is on the endangered species list, and any damage or disturbance to its habitat will result in very large fines. Therefore, each encounter with an elderberry bush had to be mitigated.
“The split in the project came about so we could at least get going on that lower portion, phase one, and get that done,” said Carter. “We thought we had bought enough time to finish with all the environmental issues while we were working on that, and then could move directly into phase two.”
But those issues took a lot longer than anticipated to resolve with the Department of Fish and Game, the Army Corp of Engineers, and all other relevant agencies. And it was not cheap.
According the the Madera County Road Department, the cost to mitigate for impacts to one elderberry bush on Phase 1 was approximately $15,000. The cost to mitigate for impacts to three elderberry bushes on Phase 2 (current phase) was approximately $200,000.
“When you drive through the site now you’ll see areas that have orange fencing around them,” said Carter. “Those fences surround bushes that it was determined could stay in place. However, they have to be protected, so that’s why they have the fencing all around so they’re not damaged during construction.”
So, as the Road Department prepares to begin work on their Project Study Report for the bridge at Fine Gold Creek, they can only keep their fingers crossed that there are no elderberry bushes in the area.
As an interesting note, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to “stop the federal bureaucrats’ footdragging” saying that, “A 2006 study sponsored by FWS itself found that the VELB no longer needed special protections and should be taken off the ESA list. But the agency failed to act, and the beetle stayed on the list. And while the Service provided an initial response in 2011 to PLF’s delisting petition, it has let the 12-month deadline for providing a final determination expire.”
By the way, did you know that your Road Department has a facebook page where you can see pictures, get updates and watch video of the blasting operations on Road 200? Check it out at http://www.facebook.com/maderacountyroads.