I asked a great question at today's DemoForum session on whether a Third Bridge is needed in Salem, Oregon.
"Mr. Fernandez, what is the single most important reason Salem needs a Third Bridge? And please support your reason with some facts."
The answer City of Salem Public Works director Peter Fernandez gave was direct, concise, and straightforward.
Also... proof that a Third Bridge isn't needed, just as No Third Bridge spokesperson Scott Bassett argued at the forum.
Consider this: Fernandez is a smart guy.
Also, he's an experienced engineer. He has been intimately involved with Third Bridge planning for years. He's speaking at a forum filled with people skeptical about the project. The Mayor and several city councillors are in attendance.
Public Works Director Peter Fernandez is going to come up with the very best answer he can to my question.
I asked for the single most important reason. Numero Uno. #1. The words most likely to make opponents of a Third Bridge think, "whoa, maybe we really do need this thing!"
So how did Fernandez respond?
By saying that the single most important reason is that there is only one way into and out of West Salem. Redundancy and safety were the top reasons a Third Bridge is needed. He said that the bridges are seismically unfit. Currently serious accidents on the bridge tie up traffic for long distances into neighborhoods on both sides of the river.
Sort of true.
But these are lousy reasons to spend $600 million or so on a Third Bridge. Scott Bassett explained why when he took the microphone in response to Fernandez' answer to my question.
Obviously Salem already has two bridges, or we wouldn't be talking about a Third Bridge. Fernandez' reference to one bridge probably meant that the current bridges each are four lanes going one way, westbound or eastbound. But Bassett pointed out that plans already exist for some lanes to be reversed on a bridge if an accident shuts down the other bridge.
Further, the Union Street walking/biking "pedestrian" bridge is capable of handling emergency vehicles. And there is another bridge across the Willamette in Independence, about twenty minutes away. So a $600 million Third Bridge wouldn't offer much additional redundancy.
[Update: here's a Vimeo video of the DemoForum session. My question is asked and answered at about the 55:00 minute mark.]
A new bridge would, however, be much more likely to survive the 9.0 Big One earthquake which will hit western Oregon eventually. It isn't a question of "if," but of "when." The geological historical record proves that.
Bassett addressed this issue in his remarks. The current bridges need to be retrofitted. He said they were designed to remain standing after a powerful earthquake, but not to remain usable. (Of course, many roads likely won't be usable after the Big One either.)
The situation is akin to what my wife and I faced. We live in a house that was built in the early '70s, before building codes required stricter earthquake standards. Instead of buying a newer house, we spent way less to retrofit our home and garage.
Peter Fernandez' answer to my question points to the wisdom of doing the same thing with the current bridges: retrofit them; this can be done for tens of millions rather than hundreds of millions of dollars.
Bassett discussed improvements to the road connections that could be made at the ends of the current bridges. These would take care of congestion problems -- even though tellingly, Fernandez did not mention traffic congestion in his Most Important Reason response.
Bottom line: today the City of Salem Public Works director admitted that the most important reason to build a Third Bridge isn't a very good reason. Redundancy and safety concerns with the current bridges can be resolved without constructing another bridge across the Willamette.
Watch this instructive No Third Bridge video to learn more about why Salem doesn't need a new bridge.