Aug. 27--A couple of long blocks north of Highway 101, bicyclists whiz up and down the San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail, one of the best bicycle paths in the valley. At the property of tech giant Intel, a few of them cross to the east side of the creek on a wooden bridge called "The Freedom Bridge."
They might not have that option much longer. Despite its name, the Freedom Bridge is ensnared in a bureaucratic tussle involving Intel, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the city of Santa Clara. And if it disappears, a cadre of bicyclists and pedestrians will be inconvenienced.
Here's the story as I can gather it: The Freedom Bridge was built by Intel less than two decades ago, when the company owned property on both sides of the creek. It was initially meant to be temporary, a bridge for construction crews. Then it became a popular route to work.
Santa Clara officials say Intel recently sold the property on the west side of the creek to Greystar, an apartment developer. That change of ownership has renewed doubts about the bridge from the water district, which says the crossing fails to meet its standards for trail connections and access ramps for walkers and the disabled.
Meanwhile, the bicyclists have been waging a last-ditch -- pun intended -- campaign to save the bridge, which could be demolished as early as Sept. 16, after Intel's permit for the crossing expires. If the bridge comes down, bicyclists and pedestrians would have to circle north via a very busy Mission College Boulevard.
"We believe that spending money to demolish the bridge would make bicycle commuting harder," says Robert W. Herrick, a regular bicycle commuter who has led the effort to save the bridge. "It would create a safety problem that would result in dozens of injuries per year."
There may be an answer here through the good graces of the city of Santa Clara: Councilwoman Teresa O'Neill, the chairwoman of the City Council's bicycle and pedestrian committee, has suggested extending Intel's permit for the bridge for at least another six months to find a solution.
"We need to have time to see what it would take to bring it up to standards," says O'Neill, who says -- rightly -- that demolition would be a step backward for the city's emphasis on alternatives to cars.
There's also the thorny question of liability. O'Neill told me that neither the water district nor Intel wants to take on the liability if someone is injured on the bridge. Put another way, nobody wants to deal with the lawyers.
The public record suggests that the water district, which I dubbed "The Golden Spigot" for its free-spending ways, doesn't really like the bridge. In a letter to a constituent, board Chairwoman Barbara Keegan said bridges "pose an ongoing maintenance issue for us."
When I talked to her, Keegan left the door open to saving the bridge. "Certainly, the district would be happy to consider an extension to the permit to see if there are things that could be done to make this a long-term facility," she told me. "That would mean meeting current standards in terms of pedestrian and bicycle bridges. And it would have to provide full access to city streets."
A spokesperson for Intel said only that the company continues to talk with the water district. But I've talked to several Intel employees who say the company is willing to do some work -- but believes that several water district demands, such as widening access ways or making the bridge an explicit public access point, infringe on its property.
So we're left with a standoff -- very Californian in this new century. I happen to think there's a way to solve this one. It begins with time. The Freedom Bridge -- wooden, utilitarian, very unfancy -- deserves a six-month or yearlong reprieve. We'll figure it out from there.
Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/scottherhold.
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