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To Build a SMARTer Haystack Landing Bridge

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To Build a SMARTer Haystack Landing Bridge

By Jann Eyrich

SMART’s signature green haystack towers patiently above the muddy river banks from where fishermen cast for stripers. A lone sailboat passes through the Narrows keeping the northbound train idling at the signal light. Operated by weights and a pair of 60 horsepower motors, this bascule type bridge lowers, quietly, in less than two minutes connecting Sonoma and Marin counties at Haystack Landing. At 147 feet, the open draw bridge is easily spied from the deck of the Highway 101 as it too spans the Petaluma River barely four hundred feet to the west of the SMART bridge. In the background, the freeway’s incessant roar is a constant reminder of the traffic the commuter train hopes to relieve but for now, it’s testing and more testing with passengers expected to board late in the year.

The new draw bridge that once spanned Galveston Bay now replaces the old Haystack Landing Bridge after 111 years of service. In April of 2015, SMART put the historic swing bridge up for grabs. It was free for the asking if you could take it off the river but sadly, no bites. In September of 2015, SMART’s engineers deftly replaced the old with the new. Stretching the channel some thirty-three feet, the new footing was barely etched outside the lines of the Northwestern Pacific’s original footprint imprinted in the rich Petaluma mud. In the blink of an eye, history vanished. 

Haystack Landing Bridge - full lift

Ironically, the steel scrap of the old bridge was removed by truck and highway, not by train or by river barge. One wonders if the Octopus has turned on itself. Are we destined to be a culture of asphalt highways or does this simple bridge – less than half the distance of a football field – span more than the Narrows? Will this bridge become a symbol of unification, a joining of the disparate cultures of two counties? Once on line, will this ‘train to nowhere’ stimulate further interest in rail traffic as John Riley hopes, inciting a resurgence of freight trains to carry the big loads? SMART’s right of way (ROW) purchase from NWP includes a second swing bridge at Black Hawk which connects to Schellville and the east side lines. The possibility of extending the commuter service to the East Bay is an idea “definitely left open” at SMART according to Riley. 

Smooth like a baby’s bottom, the ride over the 42 miles of new tracks. SMART has even muted the annoying clackity clack of more romantic train travel so passengers can ride in comfort, open-eyed, glued to open devices thanks to onboard WI FI. Think of it. SMART ridership never needs to look up from their hands, relying on a virtual connection to the world instead of contemplating the still life panorama outside the large windows. Instead, this ‘smart’ commuter will conveniently look to tweets for conversation, never bothering with the stranger or the friend in the next seat who sits quietly, earbuds attached, fueling their own reality. 

Or is it quite possible another type of rider will prevail, one whose internal rhythms embrace the crossing at Haystack Landing for what it is, a collision of urban rumblings with our natural world? Just south of the bridge, SMART offers the rider an intimate view of 4200 acres of the Petaluma Wildlife Area before rail and river part company with the Petaluma estuary folding into the salt marshes of the San Pablo Bay, the au natural AirBnB to hundreds of thousands of migrating birds of the Pacific Flyway; the original smart habitat. 

My back is braced against storm winds coursing under the 101 span over the Petaluma River while I wait for the draw bridge to lower restoring the lost link in SMART’s journey at historic Haystack Landing. Watching that sailboat motor slowly upriver, thoughts drift back to sweet childhood days in the 1950s when my older brother would carefully position the blue gray trestle across the imaginary river he painted on his American Flyer train table. After a few runs he would head out to shoot baskets; then it was my turn.

SMART Train traveling through Haystack Landing Bridge