I came away from last night's City Council meeting highly encouraged about the future of Salem.
Sure, the immediate outcome was discouraging: a 6-2 vote to move ahead with an expansion of the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) to accommodate what I like to call the Billion Dollar Boondoggle, a third vehicular bridge across the Willamette that is unneeded, unwanted (by most people), and unpaid-for.
Councilors Tom Andersen and Diana Dickey voted against the UGB expansion. Councilor Jim Lewis was absent. That left Mayor Anna Peterson and Councilors Chuck Bennett, Steve McCoid, Daniel Benjamin, Warren Bednarz, and Brad Nanke on the "Yes" side.
Which will be remembered come election time in May 2018. Mayor-elect Bennett (who currently is the Ward 1 councilor), McCoid, and Benjamin will be up for re-election if they choose to run again.
Based on how many more people testified against the Third Bridge UGB expansion last night, versus the small number in favor, every local elected official in favor of the Billion Dollar Boondoggle has a big metaphorical target on their back.
Along with lots of other Third Bridge opponents, last night I had something different on my back. And front. A No 3rd Bridge t-shirt.
There were a few people wearing pro-Third Bridge t-shirts. But the big difference between those who testified for and against the bridge during the public comment period wasn't their apparel.
It was their vastly different visions for Salem.
Supporters of the Third Bridge wanted to keep this town dominated by the automobile. They couldn't come up with any reason for spending a billion dollars on another way to get across the Willamette except the unconvincing sometimes I'm caught in congested traffic on the two existing bridges.
Their dream was to have cars and trucks freely zipping across the river.
But otherwise, I didn't get any sense that they had a compelling vision for what lay on the west and east banks of the Willamette. For them it was all about getting somewhere as fast as possible. What that somewhere was seemed unimportant to them.
Supporters of the Third Bridge are stuck in a 1950s mentality: freeways, sprawl, strip malls, suburbia, asphalt and concrete replacing nature because... well, that's growth. I wrote about this a few years ago in one of my Strange Up Salem columns, "Up to the Present, Salem."
Salem needs an anti-time machine that will let us experience what’s happening now, not the past or future. Here’s a mantra Salem’s Mayor, City Manager, councilors, and other city officials should repeat: “Up to the present, 2014 or bust.”
Imagine you’re a business owner, family, or individual thinking about relocating to Oregon. You’re looking for a with-it city that’s committed to creative, cutting-edge policies, a town focused on improving quality of life and promoting vitality by embracing positive trends instead of resisting them.
These days standing still isn’t an option. The times always have been a’changing, but now changes are accelerating. Anyone — city, corporation, citizen — who doesn’t recognize how important it is to adjust to new realities will be left behind.
Unfortunately, living in Salem feels like being stuck in quicksand while watching everyone around you run happily by. This town makes a habit of being the last to get the memo about where the world is heading.
Opponents of the Third Bridge had a much more optimistic and forward-looking vision for Salem. Person after person came to the podium and spent their three minutes of public testimony time talking about...
-- The need to protect the dozens of homes and businesses that are in the path of the proposed Third Bridge and its on-ramps/off-ramps. An entire recently-built subdivision in West Salem is under the cloud of the Billion Dollar Boondoggle, reducing property values and scaring homeowners who don't want their neighborhood destroyed in the name of illusory "progress."
-- How making the two current vehicular bridges earthquake-safe and improving their approaches would solve congestion problems while being vastly less expensive and disruptive than building a whole new bridge in a less desirable location (the Third Bridge would be in an earthquake liquefaction zone, unlike the existing bridges).
-- Focusing on making Salem much more bike and pedestrian friendly, with a modern mass transit system. The Union Street pedestrian bridge between West Salem and downtown is heavily used already. Adding a Salemtowne to Downtown multi-use trail parallel to Wallace Road would encourage more commuting by bicycle and foot at very little cost. Several knowledgeable people testified that this can be done without expanding the UGB, contrary to what City officials are wrongly saying.
-- The undeniable reality of global warming and the need to markedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions strongly argues against an archaic "pave it over" mentality that's out of touch with the 21st century. An environmental activist challenged the City Council to do the right thing, the Green thing, the think-about-our-children-and-grandchildren thing.
-- How young people are moving away from Salem to cities that offer the sort of lifestyle favored by most Millennials: mixed-use neighborhoods where it isn't necessary to drive to work, restaurants, grocery stores and such; safe bike paths for people of all ages, connected in a network that makes it possible to use pedal-power rather than gas-power to get around; a vibrant downtown rather than sterile sprawling autocentric suburban streets devoid of people.
The Third Bridge is an idea whose time has long since passed.
Sadly, a majority on Salem's City Council, including the current Mayor (Anna Peterson) and the Mayor-elect (Chuck Bennett) are stuck in the aforementioned 1950s mentality, failing to recognize the reality of the present moment.
Salem's citizens want this town to embrace a better future, not an unworkable past.
This was evident last night, as many more people testified against the archaic Third Bridge with passion, clarity, and facts, compared to the handful of bridge proponents who raised the same tired old arguments of sometimes I sit in traffic for 15 or 20 minutes waiting to cross the river.
I loved what Cara Kaser said at the City Council meeting.
She is the newly elected Ward 1 councilor (taking office in 2017) replacing Chuck Bennett. During her campaign this year, Kaser spoke with hundreds of people who live near downtown. Almost all of them opposed the Third Bridge.
Kaser testified that her constituents want the existing bridges to be fixed. They don't want a new one, feeling like their neighborhood is treated too much like a highway already. Compellingly and honestly, Kaser said "It should take longer than 5 minutes to get across the river."
Meaning, a town that puts people above cars doesn't prioritize fast-moving vehicles above human quality of life. One day soon, I dearly hope, Salem will have a Mayor and City Council majority who recognize the wisdom of this.
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