Last night's Salem City Council meeting showed how badly planning for the unneeded, unwanted, and unpaid-for Salem River Crossing project, a.k.a. the 3rd Bridge, is hurting this town.
This billion dollar boondoggle is nowhere near being built -- hopefully it never will be -- but the remote prospect that it might be constructed someday is causing problems.
Agenda item 3.3c dealt with purchases of right of way that would be paid for from 2008 Streets and Bridges General Obligation Bond funds. Some of these purchases would be on the east side of the river in the Highland neighborhood, the location of a Salem River Crossing bridgehead.
City officials called these "opportunity purchases." Meaning, there was an opportunity to use taxpayer money to buy property where the 3rd Bridge would land, if it ever were to be built.
Common sense argues that this is a bad idea, as I said in my three minutes of testimony in opposition to the proposal. I called the notion unwise, unethical, and possibly illegal -- building on testimony that preceded me from Jim Scheppke, one of the No 3rd Bridge leaders.
(Note: this was the first time I'd worn a Strange Up Salem t-shirt to a City Council meeting. I feel like it offered a certain je ne sais quoi quality to my testimony, as strangeness should.)
In the "possibly illegal" part of my testimony, I referred to a knowledgeable source about federal and state regulations regarding early acquisitions of right of way. He was anonymous, because I'd never met him and didn't have permission to use his name -- just his thoughts, which came to me from a go-between.
I enjoyed the secretive Deep Throat vibe of this. Well, until I got back to my seat after testifying, felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned around to find a guy saying to me, "Hi, I'm Bob Cortright."
Who soon thereafter went to the podium himself and spoke about what I'd said he'd said, in a considerably clearer and more convincing way. Understandably, since Cortright spent 30 years working for Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development, where he was the Transportation Planning Coordinator.
He gave me a copy of his testimony. I believe it was instrumental in causing the City Council to give a thumbs-down to buying the 3rd Bridge right of way property.
Mayor and Councilors:
You should not approve staff's recommendation to authorize spending of 2008 bond funds for purchase of right of way for the proposed 3rd bridge. Purchase of right of way is premature because it would implement a decision that has not yet been made. The proposed 3rd bridge is still just that: a proposal. Going forward before the needed environmental and land use approvals are in place undermines and potentially invalidates those processes.
Purchase of right of way before needed approvals are in place appears to be inconsistent with both federal environmental requirements and state land use laws and rules:
--Federal regulations (23 CFR 710.501(b)) limit advance purchase or right of way because it has the potential to prejudge the outcome and undermine proper consideration of federal environmental requirements. If the city purchases right of way prior to FHWA's [Federal Highway Administration] record of decision it could potentially undermine FHWA's decision and lead to loss of federal funding for the project or cause the city's share of costs to increase because the city may not be able to count money spent on right of way as an eligible project cost.
The city should confer with ODOT [Oregon Department of Transportation] and FHWA to assess whether and how right of way purchase in advance of the record of decision can comply with applicable federal regulations.
--A decision by the city to purchase right of way for a major transportation improvement that is not authorized by the city's comprehensive plan and that would require a UGB [Urban Growth Boundary] amendment and goal exceptions appears to be a "land use decision" as that term is defined in ORS 197.015.
Acquisition of right of way is generally not a "land use decision" because it implements an approved land use plan or regulation. However, in this case, the project that the city proposes to acquire right of way for is not authorized by adopted plans. (In fact, major amendments to the city's land use and transportation plans, including a UGB amendment and goal exceptions, are needed to allow the project to go forward.)
Substantial public expenditure to obtain right of way implies that the city is now deciding to authorize and move forward with construction of a third bridge. Such a decision is premature and inappropriate until the city amends its plans in compliance with relevant land use requirements.
The city should defer acquisition of right of way until plan amendments authorizing the project are in place. If the city believes that acquisition of right of way is not a land use decision, it should provide findings which explain why this is the case and which explain how acquiring right of way now does not prejudge or affect the city's subsequent land use decision on the project.
Now, what I find bizarre about this attempted waste of taxpayer money to buy right of way property for a bridge that hasn't been approved by state and federal officials, and doesn't have any funding source, is that City officials thought they could get away with it.
Did they really believe that nobody would call "Foul!" on their attempt to do an end-run around both government regulations and common sense? Didn't they suspect that paying over half a million dollars for the former Stars Cabaret property would raise eyebrows, especially since nothing much could be done with that property for many years, and maybe never, once it was bought by the City of Salem?
If City officials are being this brazen with actions that are very much in the public eye, I wonder what else they're doing behind the scenes that could be similarly (to quote myself) unwise, unethical, and possibly illegal.
Which brings me to another right of way issue that came up at last night's City Council meeting. I highly recommend that you spend five minutes watching Mark Wigg's masterful testimony, which includes a weird question to Wigg by Councilor Jim Lewis, who represents West Salem (yet doesn't know that it is "Wallace Road," not "Wallace Boulevard").
Today I gave Wigg an Oscar for Best Dramatic Performance in Salem City Council Testimony. His change of demeanor several minutes in, where he illustrates how he feels about the Public Works staff report, earned him the honor.
Here's the two page handout that accompanied Wigg's testimony. He refers to it in his response to Councilor Lewis' ill-informed question. (click to enlarge the images)
Download Mark Wigg handout
Wigg wants help from the City of Salem in building a much-needed multiuse trail in West Salem that will connect to the Union Street pedestrian bridge. It seems like a no-brainer that only requires purchasing some right of way.
Which City officials are really eager to do if the right of way is aimed at building the aforementioned unneeded, unwanted, and unpaid-for 3rd Bridge.
But which they are very reluctant to do when the right of way is needed to build a cycling and pedestrian trail that, in Wigg's words, will "create beauty and spread joy" (along with helping to alleviate traffic congestion on Wallace Road, or, in Councilor Lewis' mind, Wallace Boulevard).
This is the malevolence that the Salem River Crossing boondoggle is fostering: good ideas for improving this town are being thrown aside if there's a chance implementing them will hinder "progress" toward a vastly expensive freeway'ish monstrosity that will decimate both our citizens' pocketbooks and quality of life.
Gosh, if Wigg's multiuse trail is built with a combination of volunteer labor and City of Salem funds, people might actually like it. Can't have that, says Mayor Anna Peterson and Public Works Director Peter Fernandez, along with the right-wing City Council majority, because the trail would have to be modified, or even done away with, if the 3rd Bridge came to be.
They want West Salem to be the landing spot for a 3rd Bridge that would do nothing for local residents who'd be expected to pay for most of it. Rather, the real goal of the Salem River Crossing is to speed regional traffic through Salem on its way to I-5 and Highway 22.
Great for truckers heading to Portland or the coast. Horrible for people here.
Fortunately, Salem has lots of people like Mark Wigg who understand that creating beauty and spreading joy is much more important than wasting taxpayer money on a billion dollar project aimed at lining the pockets of special interests.
Here's a video of his Marine Drive Bike Trail proposal. Sure sounds appealing to me. If you agree, tell the Mayor and City Council: email@example.com