Mountain View Voice

Opinion - April 20, 2012

Google bridges hit a few obstacles

Back in December, the City Council blessed a deal from Google to build two bridges across Stevens Creek leading from the company's Bayshore complex to a 42-acre parcel it owns at NASA-Ames. The bridges were to be used by shuttles, emergency vehicles, bikes and pedestrians and were the only access the company planned for the 5,000 employees expected to work in a 1.2 million square foot office building at the site.

But despite an initial environmental assessment that found "no significant contributions to cumulative impacts" a flood of letters from conservationists has convinced Google to pull the plug on one bridge, at Crittenden Drive, and place all its chips in the Charleston Road bridge —which has its own problems.

Early in the process Google assured the city that the bridges would be open to full public access for walkers, cyclists, public transit buses and police and fire trucks. The company planned to own and maintain the structures for 50 years, when they would revert to the city. And the key factor was that the bridges would be large enough to carry shuttle buses to and from the Ames campus.

But the reassuring words of Google real estate and construction manager John Igoe, who said at a Civility Roundtable event in October that "enhancing the environment...enhancing the wetlands...is the responsibility of the company," came full circle when a fusillade of criticism from conservationists claimed the Crittenden bridge would unnecessarily harm many animals and birds. Among the "species of concern" are the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse that have habitats near the bridge site or have been seen in the area.

"To disrupt the creek with two crossings seems totally gratuitous," said one Sierra Club member who wrote about the bridge.

"Any bridge built as part of this project should be built no closer to wetlands than the proposed Charleston Road site," said Eric Mruz, refuge manager of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge.

But there were other comments that could spell trouble for the Charleston bridge as well, due to a sizable egret colony. The birds roost in nine city-owned sycamore trees on Shorebird Drive. Some 40 nests have been counted not far from where the bridge would be built, raising more concerns. In 2011, 40 great egret nests and five snowy egret nests were counted, making it the largest egret colony in the South Bay, according to Shani Klainhaus of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society.

And if that were not enough, the U.S. Air Force filed official comments saying it is concerned about the potential impact of a bridge at Charleston on the airflow to its large wind tunnel on Moffett Field. Full-scale airplane surfaces are tested in the tunnel and the Air Force wants assurances that no turbulence from a bridge will disrupt the flow of air to the large mouth of its tunnel, which sucks in air from a wide expanse of wetlands.

Given these latest concerns the city should call for further environmental study of the Charleston bridge to make sure that wildlife in the area and the egrets can be protected, as well as the airflows to the Air Force wind tunnel. These are serious questions that did not arise in the initial assessment. Google apparently believes a one-bridge project can be implemented without serious impacts. We hope so, but the environmental studies should be done before, not after, the project is built.

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