Last Friday I emailed each of Salem's eight City Councillors, plus the Mayor, a simple question:
"What is the single most important reason Salem needs a Third Bridge? And please support your reason with some facts."
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.
Though I wasn't wowed by the answer -- there are much cheaper ways to insure redundancy and safety than spending $600-800 million on a new bridge -- I appreciated Peter Fernandez' forthright answer.
It's tough to have a respectful, focused, meaningful debate about whether Salem needs a Third Bridge, and if so, what sort of bridge, when the opposing sides talk at each other, rather than with each other.
(West Salem Neighborhood Association chair Kenji Sugahara is quoted as saying this; I entirely agree, Kenji.)
So I thought it would be helpful to learn what the City Councillors and Mayor consider to be the One Best Reason for another bridge across the Willamette. I've heard from four people: councillors Chuck Bennett, Laura Tesler, Diana Dickey, and Dan Clem.
Here's their unedited responses. Bennett and Tesler shared a response.
Councillors Chuck Bennett and Laura Tesler:
The decision facing the council is not to build a third bridge. It is to plan for one if it is needed in the future. Council votes now are to determine its location and general scope. The most recent council discussion has been to turn down a major highway and bridge from I-5 to Highway 22 through Highland Neighborhood and along the west side of the Willamette River.
The council alternative, based on public hearings and neighborhood meetings, is that if a bridge is ever approved by voters and built, it should be a much smaller connector between the two sides of the river using existing surface streets and without raised viaducts an[d] a minimal ramp system on the west side. It also must serve cars, buses, pedestrians and bicyclists.
Councillor Diana Dickey:
Salem needs to consider a third bridge to plan for the future --for current and future transportation demand needs for vehicles and alternative modes including more efficient mass transit service, to relieve current and future traffic congestion, and for safety to provide an additional connection between the east and west sides of Salem.
Councillor Dan Clem:
Need another connection between West Salem and Salem. 1/6th of the City's population is dependent on accessing the rest of the City at one geographical spot. Throughout Salem, there are alternative routes for driving when congestion or an emergency occur. But not for West Salem: there are no alternative routes to or from West Salem. The Union Street Pedestrian/Bike bridge can only be used by smaller emergency vehicles, i.e., a Fire Ladder Truck (none exist in West Salem, only 1 Fire Station) is too big to be able to use this bridge.
The existing Marion and Center Street bridges and our downtown grid-street system handle as much traffic volumes in today (2010 - 83,816 average daily count) than is found on Interstate 5 (69,500 - 91,000) Salem interchanges. As reported in the Statesman Journal, Salem has one of the highest vehicle delay statistics in Oregon, with the potential of achieving over 650 vehicle-delay hours for pm peak by 2031 for the 31 intersections in the Central Business, North Salem, and West Salem districts. The existing bridges may not be usable if a medium-impact seismic event occurs. West Salem has grown and will continue to grow by approximately 1,000 people per year for the next 18 years.
Thanks to the four of you for sharing these reasons. You went beyond One Best Reason, but, hey, I'd rather have several reasons than none at all. Hopefully the other four councillors and the Mayor will respond soon.
I'm not in favor of building a Third Bridge. The opponents have better arguments, in my opinion. However, I'm open to changing my mind. What bothers me the most about how this project has been managed and publicized is this:
Most people in Salem are barely aware that a week from now, the City Council will vote on what apparently is the largest public works project in Salem's history.
I wish there had been more news coverage in the Statesman Journal, and several well-promoted debates where people could ask questions of the bridge's proponents and opponents. I'm much better-informed about this project than most; yet I have lots of unanswered questions.
How much would it cost to earthquake-proof the two existing bridges? I've been told that this could be done at a much lower cost than building a new Third Bridge. Since safety and redundancy are key concerns, why not focus on making those bridges more seismically sound?
And if traffic congestion is another central concern, why not improve the ability of the current bridges to handle what seems to be a stable traffic load? (Meaning, it isn't increasing much, if at all.)
I'm also concerned that the new-fangled "Salem Alternative" design, which is less freeway'ish than the bigger and badder 4-D and other designs, isn't recognized as what it is: an option that could be changed in the future.
Nothing, so far as I know, prevents the Salem City Council from re-voting a year or two from now on what sort of Third Bridge to build. Giant elevated onramps and offramps could be resurrected in the next phase of project planning, should the Council vote in favor of moving ahead on June 24.
One thing seems virtually certain: Salem will be debating the Third Bridge issue for a long time to come. As noted before, the debate needs to be much more in the public eye than it has been so far.
Transparency is good -- both for windows and for political decisions.