Over the Hill

Lessons from Paso’s bridge-building fiasco

Many Paso Roblans are frustrated by our endless water-rate squabble. We can no longer feel superior to Los Osos for its marathon sewer indecision.

But our hopes brightened May 21. The deadline passed for petitions to force an election regarding our city council’s latest water-rate increase. No petitions were filed. But this week, our hopes were crushed. The opponents filed for a court order to nullify the increase.

Here’s a story that may cheer us up. It’s about another long ordeal that once plagued Paso Robles.

The Salinas River divides Paso Robles. For 70 years the only bridge was at 13th Street. In the 1950s, the state built a bridge for new Highway 46, but it was too far north to help much. The city was growing to the southeast.

The old, iron 13th Street Bridge was replaced in 1966 with a concrete bridge, but it still had just two lanes. Traffic backed up more and more each year.

In the 1970s, city officials considered and discarded several ideas for another river crossing, such as a dry-weather ford or a bridge at 4th Street.

In 1977, the city bought a secondhand iron bridge in Templeton. It had been replaced by the present concrete bridge. It cost $12,000 plus $200 per month to store on a nearby pasture. The city sold it in 1979 for scrap for $5,000.

In 1980, engineers estimated a four-lane Niblick Road bridge would cost $10 million, and a two-lane bridge would cost $6.8 million.

City officials proposed three financing schemes. All were discarded because of public protests. One was a citywide assessment district with assessments ranging from $180 to $450 per year. Another was an 8 percent tax on utility bills. The third involved charging tolls on the new bridge and the 13th Street Bridge.

In 1985, city officials offered to let builders pay their bridge-development fees in advance at almost a 50 percent discount. The builders got certificates like gift certificates. A Bakersfield company bought $2.9 million worth as an investment. The city scraped up enough more to pay $4.4 million to construct a two-lane, no-sidewalk Niblick Road Bridge in 1987.

Soon people called it a two-lane parking lot. In 1998, Paso Robles motorists were so frustrated they approved a $33 million bond issue for bridge improvements and other construction.

But the city already had almost enough bridge funds to expand the Niblick Bridge. So, most of that bond money paid for building the public safety complex, the senior citizens center, the veterans building, the airport terminal and widening the 13th Street Bridge. I hope our water-rate ordeal ends that well.

Contact Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.