Dirty little secrets deserve to be broadcast to the world when this is in the public interest. At last night's City Council meeting I was pleased to play a part in revealing something that the folks at City Hall have been trying to hide as best they could:
The main source of projected funding for the $430 million Third Bridge (or Salem River Crossing) is tolls -- $175 million worth, generated by a $1.50 each way charge to cross both the new bridge and the two existing bridges.
Here's the proof: a chart from the official Salem River Crossing Project "Funding Strategy" dated March 6, 2015.
As reported in yesterday's blog post, "Salem City Council votes 5-4 against Third Bridge," an Intergovernmental Agreement that required the City of Salem to include tolling (also known as congestion pricing) in the Third Bridge funding strategy was rejected.
The main reason this happened was that moving forward with an unneeded, unwanted, and unpaid-for Third Bridge is a really bad idea. You can see Councilors Cara Kaser and Tom Andersen giving some reasons why in a You Tube video I made.
But craziness associated with the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) -- including its requirement to move ahead with dreams of tolling bridge users who currently cross for free -- certainly played a part in the City Council saying NO to the IGA.
It seems pretty damn clear that the IGA was a product of backroom dealmaking and political machinations. The state Department of Land Conservation and Development, DLCD, was all set to be part of a legal appeal of the City of Salem's 2016 decision to enlarge the urban growth boundary so the gigantic Third Bridge would be inside it.
This decision occurred at a December 5 City Council meeting a month before newly-elected progressive councilors Cara Kaser, Sally Cook, and Matt Ausec would take office. I talked about the shenanigans in "Third Bridge sadly staggers on in pathetic City Council meeting."
I saw downcast eyes and morose expressions from the Billion Dollar Boondoggle Five.
City Manager Steve Powers also didn't look very happy, perhaps because I suspect he agrees with much, if not all, of what Councilor Tom Andersen said in his animated six minute explanation of why he was voting NO on the Urban Growth Boundary expansion needed to accommodate the Salem River Crossing bridgeheads.
Below you'll find a video of Andersen's remarks. I urge you to watch it. This was a great example of the proverbial speaking truth to power.
I especially liked his oh-so-true observation that the City Council was rushing to get a vote on the UGB expansion before the end of the year because three newly elected city councilors who are against the Third Bridge, and said so in their campaigns, will take office in 2017.
So the vote tonight was a last gasp attempt by the Chamber of Commerce-backed councilors -- Bennett, McCoid, Nanke, Lewis, Bednarz -- to kiss up to the Powers That Be in this town. They used special interest money to get elected, and they paid back those special interests with their "yes" votes for the Billion Dollar Boondoggle.
Warren Bednarz was a lame duck city councilor at the time, having been defeated by Sally Cook. So once 2016 rolled around, the division of power on the City Council changed to a 4-4 split between conservatives (Bennett, McCoid, Nanke, Lewis) and progressives (Andersen, Kaser, Cook, Ausec).
This makes the DLCD's decision to drop the agency's appeal of the UGB expansion after City staff agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding between DLCD and the City of Salem really perplexing. And strongly smelling of backroom politics.
Unless DLCD officials are completely clueless, they must have known that the chances of the Salem City Council approving the Intergovernmental Agreement that flowed from the Memorandum of Understanding was dicey when the conservative/progressive split was 4-4, and highly unlikely after Chris Hoy was elected in the March special election to fill Daniel Benjamin's Ward 6 seat.
Yet the Intergovernmental Agreement rejected last night says: "The Department [DLCD], withdrew its appeal of the [UGB] decision in good faith and in reliance on City's promise to execute this Agreement, and perform its obligations in good faith thereunder."
Well, cities don't make promises. City officials do.
Somebody high-up at City Hall -- Mayor Bennett? City Manager Powers? Public Works Director Fernandez? All of the above?-- promised DLCD that the Intergovernmental Agreement requiring, among other things, tolling to be part of the Third Bridge funding strategy, would be approved by the City Council.
In other words, DLCD got scammed, either knowingly or cluelessly.
The agency dropped its appeal of the UGB expansion merely on a promise by City of Salem officials that the Intergovernmental Agreement would be approved and executed -- which, of course, it won't be after last night's 5-4 rejection by the City Council.
Even more bizarre (and lending credence to my political machinations theory), the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) basically would have required the City of Salem to do things it already is doing. This was made clear by the discussion last night.
Download Proposed Intergovernmental Agreement
Here's another thing we learned last night: the language requiring congestion pricing/tolling in the IGA was put in at the request of City of Salem officials. Public Works Director Peter Fernandez said this, as you can see in the video below.
Yet as I noted in several blog posts (see here and here), City officials repeatedly denied tolling of the Third Bridge was being considered at the same time Fernandez and other City staff were working with DLCD on finalizing language in the Intergovernmental Agreement that would require the City of Salem to include tolling as a bridge funding source.
In other words, to put it bluntly, City officials were deceiving citizens about their plans for tolling because they knew this would be very unpopular.
I called them out on this last night in my 3-minute testimony, which became about 5 minutes after Councilor Nanke asked me a question. Have a look.
The online Statesman Journal story about last night's rejection of the Third Bridge Intergovernmental Agreement has some content that didn't make it into the print version. Like, quotes of me!
Before councilors rejected the intergovernmental agreement, Salem-area resident Brian Hines said a vote for the memo of understanding was a vote to move forward with tolling the new and old bridges. (The vote Monday was on an intergovernmental agreement, not a memo of understanding.)
The city of Salem has repeatedly said that tolling was not being considered, Hines claimed. He said the memo of understanding contradicts that, adding that if councilors thought tolling was popular, they should approve the agreement and see how their reelection campaigns go.
"I don't think anyone in the city of Salem is in favor of tolling," Councilor Nanke said in response.
If you don't toll, you can't pay for the bridge, but if you do, people won't use it, Hines argued.
Great logic, in my utterly personal opinion. The way I see it, tolling Salem's bridges has some serious drawbacks, even though tolling does make sense in certain situations.
Like, when people have various ways of getting from here to there, most of which don't involve tolls.
In Salem, though, there are only three ways to get across the river currently: two vehicle bridges and a pedestrian/bike bridge. As noted in my video testimony, tolling a Third Bridge almost certainly (maybe absolutely certainly) would require tolling the two existing bridges.
This would be a burden on people without a lot of disposable income. Tolling is regressive: low-income drivers pay the same amount as high-income drivers.
And when there are few viable options to cross the Willamette without paying a toll, this seems like an inequitable way of financing a bridge -- especially an unnecessary bridge, since there's plenty of evidence that rush-hour congestion can be reduced in Salem without spending $430 million on a new Third Bridge.