Last night the City Council held a work session on the Salem River Crossing project, often termed the Third Bridge. Or, the Billion Dollar Boondoggle.
I watched some of the work session via a Facebook feed. My impression of what transpired fits with the headline of a Statesman Journal story, "Salem third bridge: City Council shows few signs of advancing proposal as deadline nears."
And why would the nine councilors show a sign that suddenly they were all in on this project?
Each of the six progressives on the City Council was elected after making a campaign promise to oppose wasting many hundreds of millions of dollars on a bridge that is unneeded, unwanted, and unpaid-for.
Since there are only eight wards in Salem, and they have roughly equal population (the Mayor also is on the council), the majority of voters in three-fourths of Salem have said "no" to the Salem River Crossing. And I strongly doubt that anything said at the work session changed any minds on the City Council.
So likely the Third Bridge will be buried for good on February 11 when it's expected the City Council will vote on whether to address legal rulings by the Land Use Board of Appeals that caused the project to be put on hold.
Since there's no good reason to keep the Salem River Crossing project alive, and many reasons to kill it, it would be a major surprise if it survives. Proponents of the bridge are doing their last-minute best, though, as noted by a Salem Reporter story, "Salem bridge advocates work to save project from collapse."
Listening to part of the work session, it seemed clear that there wasn't much appetite for building a smaller, less expensive bridge without all of the ancillary bells and whistles (metaphorically speaking, of course). The screenshot above from the City of Salem staff report for the work session shows that the actual bridge is just the tip of the iceberg of the Salem River Crossing project.
Councilor Kaser asked if it was possible to basically only build the bridge. But this would dump a lot of traffic into West Salem without the Marine Drive construction and other improvements. So congestion likely would end up being worse, not better.
And it's an open secret that the Salem River Crossing never was intended to merely be a way to reduce rush hour congestion between downtown and West Salem. Backers of the bridge have stressed that it is needed to handle regional traffic. Meaning, cars and trucks passing through Salem on their way elsewhere (like to the coast, or the Portland area).
So Salem citizens were expected to foot most of the bill for a bridge project that, in large part, benefitted people who lived somewhere else. Yes, tolls were planned on both the new bridge and the two current bridges. But obviously regular commuters across the bridges would pay more overall than occasional bridge users.
Thus part of the reason I say the Third Bridge's death is well-deserved is because of how much duplicity, scheming, misinformation, and flat-out lies bridge proponents have engaged in during the dozen years or so of Salem River Crossing planning.
Most recently, the Breakfast on Bikes blogger has done an admirable job of pointing out some of the most egregious misstatements put forward by City of Salem staff in the above-mentioned Salem River Crossing Q & A document. I shared a summary of the Breakfast on Bikes critiques in "City of Salem staff and Mayor Bennett are spinning Third Bridge facts."
The beginning of the bridge project also was marked by disturbing goings-on. There was much more happening behind the scenes than this graphic of how the Salem River Crossing Task Force voted back in 2012 lets on. (See page 6 of the Q & A.)
What's immediately evident is bad enough. There were 21 members of the task force voting. No alternative got a majority of those members. A 2018 Salem Weekly editorial, "Who's responsible for the 3rd bridge debacle?", dug deeper into the early Salem River Crossing machinations.
I'll share the editorial in its entirety, because it is important for people to understand why the bridge project ended up being such a mess.
Posted by SW Editorial Board | Jun 20, 2018
Get ready for it.
According to Federal regulations, if work is not begun on the Salem River Crossing “Preferred Alternative” by September 30, 2019, all of the Federal funds that were spent on the planning process have to be repaid to the Federal Highway Administration.
We are talking here about around $8 million dollars that could have built sidewalks and pedestrian crossings and bike lanes and street improvements in Salem.
If this happens, you will no doubt see arrows launched at the five Salem City Councilors who have effectively blocked the project from going forward. They will be vilified by 3rd Bridge enthusiasts for our having to send precious transportation dollars back to the Federal government.
But if this happens, who’s really responsible?
For the answer to that question you need to go back to August 12, 2012, and the final meeting of the Salem River Crossing Task Force.
According to the official ODOT SRC website, the purpose of the Task Force was to “provide a balanced representation of stakeholder interests.” In August of 2012 the group had been meeting for nearly six years to study traffic problems and to investigate alternatives. At their final meeting the Task Force was asked to vote on their preference for going forward with several variations on a new Salem river crossing, or to not proceed — the so-called “No Build” alternative.
In the final vote of the 22 members present, none of the “build” options received a majority of the vote. Alternative 4D, the $800 million monstrosity that was later rejected by the Salem City Council, received the most votes with 10.
But seven of the Task Force members voted for “No Build’ and one member who had to leave early also voiced her strong preference for “No Build” earlier in the meeting, making a total of eight. It must be noted that all of the representatives of Salem neighborhood associations voted for “No Build.”
And who voted for the “build” options?
Six were staff members representing local governments and three represented business interests, including one who had to declare a conflict of interest because of property he owned in the path of the “build” options. We should question why these bureaucrats and businessmen were stacking the Task Force to begin with. Was the Task Force designed to reach a foregone conclusion to build a 3rd Bridge? To many it seems that way.
Whether that was true or not, it is clear that the Task Force never came together on a strong consensus to move forward on a “preferred alternative” for the 3rd Bridge. After six years of meetings, nearly all of the ordinary citizens on the Task Force remained unconvinced that the project was viable.
Darlene Strozut, who represented the Highland Neighborhood Association on the Task Force, spoke for all of the neighborhood associations when she summed up the meeting this way: “All neighborhood association representatives voted for either no build or widening/improving the current bridges. Assuming none of those have changed their minds, going forward with a recommendation not supported by any of the impacted neighborhood representatives, plus no financing plan, seems unrealistic.”
It should be clear from this that the Salem River Crossing project went off the rails six years ago, at the final meeting of the Task Force, and that should have been the end of it.
Instead, the bureaucrats and business interests who pushed it from the start put it back on track.
The recommendation of the Task Force, such as it was, went to the project Oversight Team, comprised of elected officials. Included there were long-time 3rd Bridge enthusiasts like former Salem City Councilor Dan Clem and Marion County Commissioner Sam Brentano. They chose to ignore the fact that it was mostly only the bureaucrats and the business interests who wanted a 3rd Bridge.
They then proceeded to waste millions of our Federal dollars on grandiose plans that had never attracted strong support from the citizens who would be asked to pay for them.
If we end up having to repay those millions to the Feds, they will be the ones responsible for this wasteful debacle.