I've been worried that the Trump administration's love of "alternative facts," otherwise known as falsehoods, would creep into other levels of government such as the City of Salem.
Well, today that worry manifested as reality in a post about 3rd Bridge tolling on the City's Facebook page.
I was deeply irritated after reading it, and not just because I'm strongly opposed to building an unneeded half-billion dollar 3rd Bridge, a.k.a. the Salem River Crossing (which would cost around a billion dollars once financing is included).
What bugged me the most was the disregard for evident facts in the post. Look, I understand that one job of PR people at the City of Salem is to defend policy decisions, even if they are screwy. But these communications staff also have a responsibility to citizens to be as honest, open, and transparent as possible.
After all, they are public servants, not servants of Mayor Bennett and City Manager Powers.
Here's the "alternative facts" (in bold) put forth by a City spokesperson who, so far as I can tell, only is identified on the Facebook page by an email address: firstname.lastname@example.org The "actual facts" as I understand them follow.
(1) "The City of Salem is not considering tolling any of Salem’s bridges." Wrong. The City is moving ahead with plans for the Salem River Crossing. The official funding plan for this $430 million project includes tolling. Here's proof. The plan is to raise $175 million via a $1.50 each way toll on the new bridge.
(2) "Congestion pricing is one of many financing options that will be considered when the project is ready for design and construction." So misleading, I also call this statement wrong.
First, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) entered into by the City of Salem and state Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD) doesn't say that congestion pricing (meaning, tolls) is an option. It is a requirement. Here's part of the City's obligations under the MOU.
The MOU says will include. The Facebook post says will be considered. If the MOU is approved by the Salem City Council, thereby becoming an Intergovernmental Agreement, this will be binding on the City of Salem.
The purpose of the MOU was to get DLCD to forego being part of a legal appeal of the City of Salem's decision to expand its urban growth boundary to accommodate the Third Bridge. Indeed, this appeal was dropped by DLCD after the MOU was agreed to. Pretty obviously, DLCD staff didn't think the Salem River Crossing plan met state land use goals. So the MOU was drafted to force the City to pursue environment-friendly options that it hadn't been sufficiently interested in before.
Such as congestion pricing. The way I read the MOU, which is how the No 3rd Bridge folks and the Breakfast on Bikes blogger also read the MOU, tolling would be a must, not a maybe, if the MOU is ratified by the Salem City Council. See here and here.
If City officials somehow believe that the language in the image above, "City will include a congestion pricing model," means that this just has to be considered by Third Bridge planners, not implemented, I look forward to seeing a letter from DLCD confirming this. Until that happens, I and others will continue to assume that some form of tolling is a must for the Third Bridge under the MOU, not a maybe.
Another falsehood in this statement on the City's Facebook page is the assertion that there's no design for the Salem River Crossing.
Actually, there is, or at least will be by November of this year, because this is a requirement of the bridge's Environmental Impact Statement. A Federal Highway Administration environmental specialist, Emily Cline, confirmed this after I emailed her following an assertion by Mayor Bennett that there wasn't any design for the Third Bridge. Cline said (emphasis added):
Dear Mr. Hines:
Thank you for your interest in the Salem River Crossing project. We expect the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to be published fall 2017. The Preferred Alternative was recommended by the Oversight Team in February 2014. The Final EIS will analyze the Preferred Alternative and respond to public and local agencies/organizations comments from the Draft EIS. The Final EIS will contain preliminary engineering design. Any alternative that is forwarded would go through detailed engineering design prior to construction. If the decision is made to pick a build alternative, we would hope to have a Record of Decision by the end of 2017.
(3) "Congestion pricing is a charge to motorists using a certain lane or lanes at specific times of day as a way to create a smooth flow of traffic." Not true, because this is only one aspect of congestion pricing. And that statement by the City of Salem spokesperson gives the impression that the whole Third Bridge wouldn't be tolled.
Here's what I said about this misleading statement in a comment I left on the Facebook post.
Congestion pricing means tolls in this context of the 3rd Bridge. Do some Googling of what congestion pricing means. It involves tolls of one sort or another.
"Congestion pricing, also known as variable tolling, offers a solution. Congestion pricing means the highway toll changes based on the number of drivers using the road. Travelers respond to the higher tolls by shifting nonessential trips to a different time or by carpooling, thus reducing congestion."
It is false that congestion pricing is limited to what this post wrongly says: a charge to use a lane or lanes at certain times of day. The Federal Highway Administration lays out the true options for congestion pricing:
"Variably priced lanes, involving variable tolls on separated lanes within a highway, such as Express Toll Lanes or HOT Lanes, i.e. High Occupancy Toll lanes
Variable tolls on entire roadways – both on toll roads and bridges, as well as on existing toll-free facilities during rush hours
Cordon charges – either variable or fixed charges to drive within or into a congested area within a city
Area-wide charges – per-mile charges on all roads within an area that may vary by level of congestion"
The first two of the four congestion pricing options are what would apply to the 3rd Bridge. They are TOLLS. The Federal Highway Administration uses that word. So the City of Salem needs to stop misleading citizens. Hopefully you will correct this Facebook post to reflect the truth about the congestion pricing/tolls Salem citizens would be required to pay if the 3rd Bridge ever is built.
(4) "Adoption of the IGA is not on the agenda for the February 13th City Council meeting and will not be discussed. Rumors to the contrary are false." Wow. Now we're deep into the woods of Alternative Facts territory. This is the sort of spin-doctor stuff that drives people crazy when public servants in government agencies present a highly selective view of the truth.
The almost-certain full truth is that adoption of the Intergovernmental Agreement (formalizing the MOU signed by the City Manager) was indeed planned to be on the February 13 City Council agenda, but was pulled at the last moment -- perhaps because City officials were hearing from citizens that they didn't want to pay no damn toll to cross the river (or words to that effect).
Here's the evidence for this.
-- A comment from the No 3rd Bridge folks on the City's Facebook post says, "It was on the agenda until just recently." Another commenter said, "I had a conversation with a council member who told me they expected the third bridge to be on the agenda."
-- Quite a while ago the No 3rd Bridge Facebook page had an Event post about the February 13 agenda item. That post was deleted after it was realized that the MOU/IGA item wasn't on the agenda. But I shared part of the post several days ago:
"At the Salem City Council meeting on Monday, February 13th, the City Council will deliberate on an Intergovernmental Agreement with the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development that would advance the 3rd Bridge project (Salem River Crossing)."
-- So for quite a few days citizen activists used social media to urge people to express their view about a February 13 City Council meeting agenda item that a City spokesperson crudely dismisses as false rumors. Well, almost certainly those rumors were valid until some City official decided to pull that item from the agenda. I've closely followed No 3rd Bridge Facebook posts for a long time. They are always factually based. It is extremely unlikely that the No 3rd Bridge folks made up a false agenda item for the February 13 meeting. It must have been planned to be on the agenda.
-- I checked the City's Calendar page on its web site late Thursday night to see if the February 13 City Council meeting agenda was online. It wasn't, though agendas for meetings of the Housing Authority and Urban Renewal Agency, which happen just before the Council meeting, were available. The February 13 City Council agenda wasn't online until today, Friday morning. That is unusual, since Council agendas typically are posted sometime on Thursday. So this also points to a last minute change in the agenda.
Alternative facts. Falsehoods. Misleading the public.
Whatever you want to call the City of Salem's Facebook post about tolling/congestion pricing on the Third Bridge, that sort of spin-doctor communication with the public needs to stop. The City's communication staff have a duty to be upfront, honest, and transparent with us citizens.