It's a big deal when Salem's Mayor-To-Be appears to be clueless about what needs to happen before a plan for the proposed $430 million Third Bridge across the Willamette can be approved by the Federal Highway Administration.
Chuck Bennett takes office in January 2017.
Hopefully he will educate himself in the next few months about the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and what is required before a NEPA Environmental Impact Statement can be given a thumbs-up by the Federal Highway Administration.
Today the No 3rd Bridge folks put up a post called "The Mayor-elect does not understand the NEPA process."
Judging by his remarks on the radio a couple weeks back, our Mayor-elect does not understand what the Federal Highway Administration requires in order to approve a Final Environmental Impact Statement. According to the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) the FHWA needs a detailed design plan, along with a credible financing plan.
The Mayor-elect thinks we can get the FHWA to approve the current half billion dollar plan that is funded about 40% with tolls on both the old and new bridges, and then change our mind and design a smaller bridge that doesn't require tolling. Wrong. You can't do that Mr. Mayor-elect. That would be a bait and switch. The NEPA does not allow that.
If you want a smaller bridge that is not funded with tolls you need to modify the plan now, including the funding plan, before you send it in to the FHWA. Or you can attempt the bait and switch approach, and see if you get caught. Those are your choices.
I listened to the two-minute interview with Bennett on KYKN radio. At about the 55 second mark, Mayor-elect Bennett said this:
As part of the Environmental Impact Statement, there had to be put together a plan that says if we get the OK, we could find a way to pay for this [Third Bridge]. Well, in a theoretical world, with a theoretical bridge, you could theoretically pay for it with tolls. The problem with that theoretical world is, that's not Salem, Oregon. And we're not going to build a bridge financed by tolls in Salem, Oregon.
It looks to me like Mayor-elect Bennett has just done a big favor to opponents of the Third Bridge by undermining the credibility of the Recommended Funding Strategy for the Salem River Crossing (official name of the Third Bridge). This financial plan is a requirement before the Federal Highway Administration will approve an Environmental Impact Statement.
Here it is (click to enlarge):
The biggest chunk of money to pay for the $430 million bridge is supposed to come from tolling the bridge, along with the two existing vehicular bridges -- $1.50 each way. This supposedly would raise $175 million.
Now, I readily admit that I'm no expert in the arcane art of how the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) operates. But some Googling leads me to believe that the No 3rd Bridge folks are correct: Chuck Bennett doesn't understand how the approval process works.
A "FHWA Financial Plan Guidance" document says that you can't just make stuff up about how a $430 million bridge is going to be paid for. If you want to get federal assistance, and the Third Bridge funding strategy is counting on $40 million from the feds, then:
The content of the Initial Financial Plan and each Annual Update should be certified as "accurate and reasonable to the best of my knowledge and belief" by the Chief Executive Officer of the Project Sponsor(s)... Acceptance and approval will be based upon a compliance review that will evaluate, among other items, the reasonableness of the cost estimates, the viability of the identified funding sources (including whether they are contained in the fiscally constrained State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), and Long Range Plan), and the likelihood that the funding commitments will prove sufficient to complete the project as planned.
Well, when Salem's incoming Mayor is on record as saying "we're not going to build a bridge financed by tolls in Salem, Oregon," that sure seems to undercut the "viability of the identified funding sources."
At the beginning of the KYKN interview clip, Mayor-elect Bennett says about the Third Bridge:
Let's settle on a location and then at some point design a bridge that the residents of this community feel would serve their needs and they'd be willing to pay for.
The No 3rd Bridge post says this isn't possible. And I'm confident that's correct.
As I wrote about in "Why the unbuilt Third Bridge boondoggle is hurting Salem," Bob Cortright is helping opponents of the Third Bridge understand the approval process. Since Cortright spent 30 years working for Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development, where he was the Transportation Planning Coordinator, I trust his knowledge on this subject.
So almost certainly Mayor-elect Bennett is wrong.
You can't settle on a plan for a $430 million bridge (known as the Preferred Alternative), submit an Environmental Impact Statement and funding strategy based on that plan, and later tell the Federal Highway Administration, "Hey, now we're going to do something very different; hope that's OK with you guys."
It won't be. Bait and Switch not only is fraudulent, often it is illegal.
Bennett seems to think that a cute cheap little 2-lane bridge could be substituted for the half-billion-dollar Third Bridge if that's what Salem citizens "feel would serve their needs and they'd be willing to pay for."
This isn't my understanding of how the federal approval process works.
First the bridge is designed. A credible funding plan is developed to go with the design. Then all that is sent in to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. Bennett seems to think the approval comes first, and the design plus funding plan can be... whatever.
Hopefully some City official can educate Mayor-elect Bennett about how the process really works.
Lastly, let's follow the money and get a pretty damn good clue about why Chuck Bennett is such a strong advocate for the Third Bridge. In his 2016 Mayoral campaign Bennett took $3,000 from the Chamber of Commerce Build Jobs PAC, $5,000 from the Oregon Realtors PAC, and $7,500 from the Marion/Polk Homebuilders Association.
Another No 3rd Bridge post explains why Salem realtors and homebuilders are so hot for the Third Bridge. And why they're happy they've got a Mayor who will do his best to give them what they lust for.
WHY REALTORS ARE CHAMPIONS FOR THE 3RD BRIDGE
A number of realtors testified last Wednesday in favor of the 3rd Bridge. Here is a key paragraph (click to read) of their written testimony. And next to that is a map showing their true motivation.
Selling homes! Of course.
You can see from the map that one of the largest areas of undeveloped land zoned for single family homes (in yellow) is in the northwest corner of the city. Hundreds and hundreds of homes could be built and sold! And these folks will want to get in their cars and make a direct connection to I-5 without having to drive miles south to the Center Street bridge. That's why all of us are being asked to reach into our pockets for hundreds of millions to fund a better connection for these new homebuyers.
That is what the Realtors mean when they say "the 3rd Bridge is vital for the future economic growth in the area." That's what they mean by "regional mobility." It means speeding their new homebuyers to Keizer Station, the Woodburn Outlet Mall and to Portland. And because they contributed many thousands of dollars to certain City Councilors, they are likely to get the land use actions they want.