Sauntering along the 60-year-old concrete bridge that connects Ocean Avenue and the Santa Monica Pier can be an awkward experience for the millions of visitors who traverse it each year.
The bridge's steep pitch, skinny driving lanes and sidewalks, and foot-high curbs pose hurdles and hazards — especially when a crush of sun-dazzled pedestrians with strollers or beach gear mingle with motorists and cyclists. Squeezed off the sidewalks on both sides of the bridge, pedestrians often find themselves vying with taxis and minivans for space in the roadbed.
"In every way the bridge is a problem," said Kent Smith, chairman of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp., which manages the pier. "It's really unsafe and has a really steep grade. It's not a great entry to what is Santa Monica's most famous landmark."
FOR THE RECORD:
An article and its headline in the Nov. 3 LATExtra about Santa Monica's plans to replace the bridge that connects Ocean Avenue to the Santa Monica Pier described the bridge as being 60 years old. It is 70 years old.
After years of considering solutions, Santa Monica officials recently applied for millions in federal dollars to replace the bridge with an $8-million span that would be wider, more pedestrian-friendly and better able to withstand earthquakes.
A fresh design would have to address a number of issues, including how to retain adequate vertical clearance on the roadway below and preserve the landmark neon sign at Ocean Avenue that whimsically, if misleadingly, announces "Santa Monica Yacht Harbor * Sport Fishing * Boating * Cafes." Years ago, the sign was determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that automatically placed it on the California Register of Historic Places.
Complexity is nothing new for engineers dealing with the bridge. Its construction was part of "one of the most complex highway interchange projects of the time," said James Harris, Santa Monica Pier historian. Moomat Ahiko Way, an entrance onto Pacific Coast Highway, runs under the span; another roadway heads under the bridge and into the beach community south of the pier.
When construction on the bridge began on Sept. 19, 1939, the entrance to the municipal pier was closed, according to Harris' "Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last Great Pleasure Pier," published last year in honor of the wooden structure's centennial. Recognizing that the bridge project would hamper tourism, the city temporarily reduced rents for businesses on the pier by 5%.
The $200,000 bridge opened in June 1940, but it was not immediately clear to visitors that it was the proper route to the pier. With the money saved from the rent reduction, the Santa Monica Pier Businessmen's Assn. committed $2,000 to hire the Pan-Pacific Neon Sign Co. to design and mount a sign at the top of the bridge. Since the sign went up in 1941, it has served as a beacon for "pleasure pier" aficionados, who for the most part have managed to navigate the bridge safely.
In the early 1990s, inspectors with Los Angeles County's Department of Public Works determined that the pier bridge was "structurally deficient and functionally obsolete," according to an August city staff report. Although the bridge is in no danger of falling down, "structurally it does lack the details we would put in bridges in the modern era," said Mark Cuneo, the city's principal civil engineer.
In addition to having railings that Cuneo sees as too short by today's standards, the bridge features a 10% slope, steeper than what is allowed under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.
Inspectors gave the structure a sufficiency rating of 30.6 out of 100. Under the federal Highway Bridge Program, bridges with a rating of less than 50 qualify for federal funding for a portion of the replacement cost.
In 1995, city staff began considering widening the bridge, but public concerns about traffic disruptions prompted engineers to scale back the project. Moreover, Caltrans determined that the structure would not be eligible for federal funds if the plan were merely to widen and seismically retrofit it.
Recently, the staff recommended replacing the bridge with a wider structure with a "useful life" of 75 years. The federal government is expected to kick in $7 million, with the city picking up the remaining $1 million, the city staff report said.
"We thought it definitely was too narrow," first-time visitor Jo Hendrickson of Marlborough, New Zealand, said one recent afternoon after descending the bridge with her husband, Al, and daughters Chelsea, 13, and Brianna, 11. "A wider bridge would be a good idea."
Eric Bailey, a civil engineer with the city of Santa Monica, said he expects construction on the replacement bridge to begin in 2013 or so.