The end of the road for Santa Clara’s Freedom Bridge in sight
A view of Freedom Bridge, a link across the San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail in Santa Clara. Photo CC-by Betsy Megas

The future of Santa Clara’s Freedom Bridge has been uncertain for years, but now the end may be near for the bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the San Tomas Aquino Creek Trail near Intel Corp.’s campus.

Tucked between Highway 101 and Mission College Boulevard, the bridge was always meant to be temporary, even when Intel built it on land leased from the Santa Clara Valley Water District in 1997. But more than 20 years and multiple tentative lease extensions later, the little wooden bridge remains and city leaders and cyclists say it is well-used.

Freedom Bridge’s location in relation to Highway 101 and Intel Corp. in Santa Clara. After years of controversy, it appears the bridge may soon be removed. Image courtesy of Santa Clara public records

That won’t likely be enough to save the pedestrian pathway, which is not ADA-compliant, has some structural issues and may become a liability in the event of future flooding, according to Valley Water. The agency also wants the Santa Clara-based tech company to create a public easement, or allow non-Intel employees passage through its campus to make the bridge more useful to locals.

Valley Water officials say they’ve worked with Intel and the city for years to find an agreeable solution to no avail.

“We appreciate the value this brings to residents, but Valley Water’s focus is to protect public safety and preserve the health of the watershed,” Richard Santos, Valley Water Director for District Three, said in a statement to San Jose Spotlight

But Intel has said it can’t comply with some of Valley Water’s demands.

“We are complying with the Water District’s guidance to remove the bridge,” said Linda Qian, a spokesperson for Intel. “In addition to the structural deficiency and ADA compliance concerns that the Water District has, we believe that making the bridge accessible to the public creates a security issue for our campus and a potential liability issue for our company.”

The bridge was once meant to become a link between two Intel campuses on either side of the creek, but the company sold its land on one side of the bridge to housing developer Greystar in 2016. Councilmember Teresa O’Neill said she’s spoken to representatives at Greystar, who have said they would like to see the bridge stay.

“I think they were hearing the comments from the council and others, fearing that their proposed development would be a little isolated,” O’Neill said.

But not the bridge nor the land it sits on is owned by the city or Greystar. And the two groups involved appear to have made a decision.

Intel hadn’t notified employees of the impending bridge removal as of a week and a half ago and said it would not make that announcement until it received permit approval “from several regulatory agencies to begin work.”

Santa Clara has received a permit request from Intel to remove the bridge, city officials said.

In the meantime, the Santa Clara City Council mulled late last month whether to take a position on the future of the bridge and whether to send a letter to Valley Water on the matter.

Ultimately, councilmembers opted to send a letter advocating for the bridge to remain, despite several elected officials conceding it likely wouldn’t make an impact after years of controversy, and because the city doesn’t have an ownership or funding stake in the structure.

Even so, the effort was deemed worth it, because the bridge offers an important link for many cyclists, councilmembers and residents said.

“One of the things that is so wonderful about it is that you don’t have to rub shoulders with cars,” said Betsy Megas, a resident and local cyclist. “I think if we let this bridge go we are going to be putting people on Mission College (Boulevard) and I’ve biked that part of Mission College and it is pretty hectic, it’s pretty scary.”

The city’s letter, dated Sept. 3, asks the Santa Clara Valley Water District to work on the details with Intel to preserve Freedom Bridge, noting “Valley Water has indicated some general reasons for the bridge to be removed, but it appears there has been no significant efforts put forth to evaluate the bridge and work on a plan with Intel to preserve it along with the benefit the bridge provides to numerous people living and working in the Bay Area.”

The city’s letter “might help with this bridge, maybe it is too late,” Mayor Lisa Gillmor said last month. “Maybe it will show our support for another bridge in the future especially as the population increases in North Santa Clara, there is going to be a need for crossing the creek.”

Valley Water initially gave Intel until mid-September to remove the bridge, but has since extended its lease to Jan. 1, 2020, according to Valley Water spokesperson Matt Keller. For now the bridge remains in place as the company waits on permits.

In a Feb. 19 letter, signed by Valley Water board member Barbara Keegan, the agency said it is “open to any proposal to build a replacement bridge, as long as it meets bridge requirements.” Santos added Wednesday that he would support the city acquiring the structure to bring it up to code and make it a public space. He noted in an interview he was open to having additional conversations with city officials and Intel about options to save the bridge.

An Intel spokesperson told San José Spotlight the company doesn’t have plans at this time to build a new bridge in its place.

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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