A crowd of onlookers gazes upward expectantly as three towering cranes swing matching sections of a new steel bridge toward each other across the Petaluma River on Feb. 21.

These bicyclists, city engineers, and other community members have gathered at the riverbank on North Water Street to observe a major milestone in the progress of the much-anticipated Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan.

That plan, finished in 2008, calls for the creation of bicycle and pedestrian routes throughout Petaluma — and for some existing routes to be connected.

Copeland Crossing, as the new bridge is known, is a critical component because it provides safe access from the Lynch Creek Trail — a main bike and pedestrian thoroughfare that leads from the east side of town to the west — across the Petaluma River to North Water Street. From there, pedestrians and bicyclists can connect to downtown, the city's waterfront and the Petaluma River Trail.

The crossing also dovetails with the Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan, which is intended to guide development along the Petaluma River with the objective of making the river a central feature of the city.

For river advocate Susan Starbird, who is among the spectators, the installation of the bridge is confirmation that the plans are truly taking shape. Starbird was one of the organizers of an advisory group started in 1996 to draft a plan for future uses for the river.

"I am not here in any official capacity," she says, "but after all these years, this is the most tangible manifestation that we've seen, and it's something so close to my heart, I had to be present."

Bruce Hagen, a former member of the Petaluma Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, commutes by bicycle to his job as a project manager at Enphase Energy and also bikes recreationally.

"The new bridge is going to get a lot of traffic from the two-wheeled crowd," he declares. "Now people in the eastern part of the city will have a safe way to work, shop or ride to activities."

Hagen, along with scores of other bicyclists and pedestrians, has on occasion used the AT&T conduit pipes that span the river next to the new bridge as a shortcut to downtown. That tightrope act won't be necessary anymore with the completion of the bridge.

As the two sections of the bridge meet in mid-air, workers insert and tighten the bolts that will fuse the halves together. Consulting Design Engineer Gregg Grubin, Public Works Director Dan St. John and Project Engineer Erica Ahmann Smithies scrutinize the assembly with a mix of excitement and vigilance, as this is a key stage of a long-awaited project.

The bridge is designed to fit aesthetically with the area by resembling the nearby Balshaw Bridge, said Grubin. With vandalism an ongoing problem in downtown Petaluma, the bridge was constructed from unpainted steel that will weather naturally and can be sanded to remove any graffiti.

It's part of a $1.4 million dollar project, most of which came from the quarter-cent sales tax Measure M, which was approved by Sonoma County voters in 2004. In addition to the bridge, a portion of the funds was allocated to other locations to create lighted crosswalks with pedestrian warning signals, railroad crossing safety barriers, wayfaring signs and other safety improvements.

The bridge project isn't officially complete yet — the next phase is to create a concrete, ADA-compliant walkway and ramps from the bridge to ground level.

"We have to schedule around the weather this time of year," notes Ahmann Smithies. She estimates that the public opening of the crossing will take place by July of this year.

Ahmann Smithies explained that the 142-foot bridge is intended just for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, not for cars.

It's now part of about 20 completed miles of off-road bicycle and pedestrian trail that weaves throughout Petaluma.

The city is seeking ways – mainly through grant funding – to add to that trail system, which also includes more than 30 miles on Class 2 and 3, or on-street, bike lanes.

"I'm really proud of what has been accomplished since 2008," states Ahmann Smithies, acknowledging the work of her predecessor, the late Fleming Nguyen, who spent many years on the project. "It's been a tight situation where the city has had to find new ways to fund projects in order to achieve the vision that was set forth."

As Starbird watches the final assembly of the Copeland Crossing Bridge from the riverbank, she expresses enthusiasm about the future of the riverfront: "We are slowly reclaiming the river that is at the core of the historic reason for Petaluma's existence."

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com)