Since I like out-of-the-ordinary plays, under different circumstances I would have loved the Theatre of the Absurd that was on display last night in the Salem City Council meeting room.
While on vacation in central Oregon, via CCTV I used my laptop to watch the Council approve the so-called Salem Alternative option for a $700 million third bridge across the Willamette River.
Wikipedia tells us something about absurdist dramatists:
Their work expressed the belief that human existence has no meaning or purpose and therefore all communication breaks down. Logical construction and argument gives way to irrational and illogical speech and to its ultimate conclusion, silence.
Unfortunately, the only people silenced at the council meeting were people who would be affected by construction of the bridge, along with opponents of this unneeded, unwanted, and unpaid for example of wasteful government overreach (literally, from one bank of the river to another, over a large floodplain).
I watched a resident of West Salem who had just returned home from a lengthy time away be shushed up by Mayor Anna Peterson when he fervently asked to say something about just learning that his neighborhood was going to be trashed by bridge approaches.
However, the Mayor, city council members, and Public Works Director Peter Fernandez had plenty of time to engage in self-congratulatory excess, patting each other on the back so much I thought, "Geez, get a room" and "You should have a massage license to do that sort of stuff."
You won't learn much about went on during the council meeting by reading the Statesman Journal story.
It only appeared online. Justin Much, the reporter, didn't bother to talk with any of the No Third Bridge leaders, even though they were in the same room with him. The story reads as if Much channeled it by tuning into the thought-waves of Salem Chamber of Commerce executives.
So here's some of what really happened before the unsurprising 9-0 vote. If these scenes were in an absurdist play, I would have laughed at the irrational, illogical pronouncements by the politicians.
However, because this Third Bridge is Salem's most expensive public works project ever, with looming disastrous consequences for our city's livability and citizen pocketbooks, at times I felt like crying.
(1) Over and over, we were told that the City Council has listened to the citizenry, who don't want a humongous freeway'ish bridge like the 4-D option. (Well, in truth many neighborhood associations said they didn't want any bridge at all.)
But when Councillor Bennett asked Peter Fernandez if the 4-D option could spring back to life in the next stages of the bridge project, Fernandez said yes, all it would take would be another vote by the city council. The Mayor and four councillors are up for re-election next year. Freeway-like ramps easily could return, making areas of west and north Salem into a noisy elevated traffic wasteland.
(2) I believe over $7 million has been spent so far on bridge planning. Millions more will be spent in the next few years, fattening the wallets of consulting firms. So there must be a real need for the bridge, right?
Like reducing the supposedly horrible rush hour congestion between West Salem and downtown? Voters are going to jump at the chance to be taxed to pay for a $700 million bridge, aren't they? Otherwise, why would the City be spending so much money in anticipation of getting an OK from voters to spend hugely more?
Well, Councillor Nanke said that voters will reject bridge funding several times until they realize how bad congestion is on the existing two bridges. So it was admitted that the big congestion problem a Third Bridge is supposed to fix isn't even recognized as a problem by most citizens. No surprise that the City Council expects voters to reject paying for something they don't have a need for.
Equally absurdly, the CH2M Hill consultants hired to do bridge planning reportledly have acknowledged that the Salem Alternative option approved last night by the City Council will do hardly anything to relieve rush hour congestion to and from downtown. So what will it do? It's a mystery.
(3) Here's another thing the Salem Alternative won't do: speed traffic from the Salem Parkway (which connects with I-5) to Highway 22 and the coast. Councillors Nanke and Clausen spoke wistfully of how much they loved good old option 4-D, with those giant elevated ramps speeding traffic heading elsewhere right through Salem.
Councillor Bennett, though, was the yin to their yang, speaking about how wonderful it was that the Salem Alternative will be a much kindler and gentler bridge, enabling the good folks in West Salem to be able to more easily visit the good folks on the other side of the river.
Bicycles and pedestrians will be able to mosey across the river in $700 million style, no longer having to bike and walk all the way to the Union Street pedestrian bridge a short distance upstream. (For a view contrary to Bennett's, see this terrific Salem Breakfast on Bikes post about multi-modal transportation).
So it was agreed that enhancing regional traffic flow isn't a goal of the Salem Alternative bridge design. As noted above, enhancing local traffic flow beween West Salem and downtown also isn't a goal of the bridge. Best I could tell, the goal is to spend $700 millon of taxpayer money for... something or other. Except, those damn voters aren't going to approve paying all that money for... something or other.
To which I thought: Salem voters are smart.
(4) Absurdly -- what else!? -- the tone of the Mayor and councillors about the 4-D bridge option they first considered was akin to a breathless Scarlett O'Hara mopping her brow, just beside herself, not knowing what to do, oh, my, my, my, that horrible 4-D design just appeared one day at my doorstep, and my, my, my, it was all I could do to say, "Shoo, shoo, get away you nasty bridge design."
Here's the truth, something that was in short supply at last night's City Council meeting. Salem city staff worked closely with the task force and consultants that came up with the 4-D freeway'ish design. It was set to be approved by a majority of the councillors/Mayor who inveighed against it last night
The only reason it wasn't, repeat, only, was that No Third Bridge and other opponents brought out facts that rallied neighborhood associations, plus individual citizens, to press the city leaders to dump the 4-D option. Yet this plain fact was only obliquely referred to last night. Mostly the Mayor and councillors made it sound like they were the ones who rejected the horrible 4-D design foisted upon them. Not true.
(5) I heard a councillor speak of the horrors endured by north Salem residents who currently can't cross the river into west Salem without, gasp!, having to head downtown to use the current two bridges and the Union Street pedestrian bridge.
Hmmmm. I've lived in south Salem for 37 years.
All that time I've had to head downtown if I want to visit west Salem. Hey, why can't all of us in south Salem have our own $700 million Fourth Bridge? If it's terrible for north Salem residents to have to use the current downtown bridges, it should be terrible for those of us living south of the bridges to do that also.
Of course, neither is terrible. What's terrible is the Mayor and City Council asking citizens to pay for a Third Bridge that is unneeded and unwanted. Come election time, some politicians are going to have a lot of explainin' to do when voters ask them to justify their approval of the Salem Alternative last night.
Check out LoveSalem's excellent post on this subject, "What iS the 'Salem Alternative' anyway?" Excerpt:
If we pay attention and notice what the council is doing, and name it, again and again and again, everyone will notice what the Salem Alternative is -- a way to funnel money from the poor and middle class into the pockets of the sprawl lobby contractors and the engineering/planning consultants.