For over 60 years, Copperopolis residents have utilized the O’Byrnes Ferry Bridge as their main point of entry into Tuolumne County. The 22-foot-wide, shoulderless bridge that crosses over Tulloch Reservoir and straddles the county line has been the subject of safety concerns for years among locals, though there are no plans for reconstruction in sight.
“It’s a scary bridge,” longtime Copperopolis resident Bonnie Schaefer told the Enterprise on Jan. 17. “There are so many big trucks coming over. If we see one coming from the other direction, we stop on the other side. One day, a car zoomed around us and scraped the side of bridge.”
In early fall, a vehicle rammed into a guardrail, causing damage that has yet to be repaired. According to Public Works Director Joshua Pack, inspectors determined the damage to be primarily aesthetic and not a danger to the public, and the county must hire a specialty contractor to fix it.
Additionally, Pack said the frequency of collisions on the bridge is “fairly low” compared to other parts of the county.
Still, drivers like Schaefer have concerns about the roughly 4,500 cars and big rigs that the bridge accommodates every day.
“If you had to move over, the railing is pulled away from the road and you could be forced into it,” Schaefer said.
“The bridge is dangerous without any damage,” she added. “Every now and then it comes up in conversation how scary it is to drive over it. … When people’s lives are at stake, it should be a priority.”
District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills told the Enterprise that rebuilding the O’Byrnes Ferry Bridge isn’t a top priority with the county, though he would like it to be.
“It’s just a bad situation gone on literally for decades,” Mills said on Jan. 17. “It’s left to this board to decide if it’s a priority in the capital improvement program and see if they want to tangle with it.”
Mills said that expanding or rebuilding the bridge to a higher standard is an important project because it is “the only southbound evacuation route in that part of Calaveras County.”
“As a retired volunteer firefighter, it’s always in the back of my mind how to bring resources in while trying to get people out.”
In recent years, Mills has successfully promoted the repair of several bridges and washouts in the Copperopolis area, focusing on “pocket communities” that only have one exit point in the event of an evacuation.
Currently, his two biggest road safety concerns are the left turn from O’Byrnes Ferry Road onto Duchess Drive in Poker Flat and the segment of Highway 4 between Bonanza Mine Way and Appaloosa Road, which he describes as one of the “most dangerous stretches of road” in the county.
Yet in the case of the O’Byrnes Ferry Bridge, which saw two accidents in the past year and serves as one of only a few exit points for thousands of residents living in the Copperopolis basin, reconstruction has proven to be a complicated issue.
Although the bridge spans two counties, a decision was made in 1997 that Calaveras would be solely responsible for its maintenance and repairs, while Tuolumne would bear responsibility for Parrotts Ferry Bridge over New Melones Reservoir, county officials reported.
Last August, Tuolumne County imposed a parking ban on its side of the O’Byrnes Ferry Bridge to prevent trash accumulation and jumpers diving into the water. Mills proposed a similar ban for the Calaveras side, though cooperation would be required from private landowners, and roadblocks have not been erected.
In 2005, Tuolumne sued its neighboring county for approving over 2,000 new homes in the proposed Oak Canyon Ranch development in Copperopolis, arguing that the increased traffic would negatively impact O’Byrnes Ferry Road. Oak Canyon was ordered to pay Tuolumne $3.4 million.
A few months later, Public Works announced that Calaveras County had received a $7.5 million federal grant to rebuild the O’Byrnes Ferry Bridge, which was “functionally obsolete due to lane widths” and not up to standard, according to then-Public Works Director Rob Houghton. The two counties would have to share 20 percent of the cost, totaling $1.5 million.
However, Oak Canyon and the new bridge were never built. According to Pack, the bridge project was last discussed in 2012 when over a dozen different alignment options were developed by engineers.
“Any time you move the location of a bridge, the cost range is from $30 million to $160 million,” Pack said. Accommodating heavy trucks, navigating the depth of the lake and building piers “adds an element of complexity with permitting and construction.”
At the time, federal funding for bridges was more readily available and less competitive, Pack continued. But even then, the county was required to front 20 percent of the total cost.
“We didn’t have that money. That’s always been the stumbling point,” he said.
Pack stated the bridge project has since been “deobligated,” though he continues to apply unsuccessfully for state and federal grants. As the bridge ages, it may become eligible for additional funding.
Another factor that could rear its head in coming years is the recent acquisition of thousands of acres of Castle & Cooke land in Copperopolis by Copper Valley, LLC. The real estate developers have announced their “first phase” to complete the 1,390-lot residential area of Saddle Creek Golf Resort and expand upon the Copperopolis Town Square. Further plans are in the works.
In the event of a possible population influx in Copperopolis, Mills said, “(It would be) left to staff to perform traffic circulation studies, etc., to find out what mitigating circumstances are available to us.”