$6 million gone as Salem’s third bridge plan idles

A task force on Friday will wrap up its work on Salem traffic congestion that could be one more step away from the long-discussed third bridge in downtown Salem. (Special to Salem Reporter/Benjamin Brink)

While many in the state play armchair planner with the Interstate 5 bridge between Oregon and Washington, another intergovernmental bridge continues to grind along in Salem.

Four Salem city councilors tell Salem Reporter they still oppose a third bridge spanning the Willamette River, known as the Salem River Crossing, but there is no schedule to decide its fate.

Even still, a four-person task force addressing the city’s rush hour gridlock on Friday will finalize its recommendations to Salem City Council. Those recommendations could affect plans for a new bridge.

“A lot of people would like us to have some finality, either move it forward or stop,” said Councilor Chris Hoy. He dismissed what he called a “binary approach,” insisting there are more options than ruling on the current bridge.

“I think we probably do need a new bridge at some point,” he said. “The bridge as proposed, I’m opposed.”

The proposed Salem River Crossing would connect the city from the Highland neighborhood to West Salem. It was pitched as a pressure valve for traffic, which many have said is clogging the Marion and Center street bridges — and could get worse as the city grows.

The idea of a third bridge has been batted around since the 1970s, city officials said, but development on the Salem River Crossing only began in 2006. Then it was not until 2012 that  the city council chose a design: a bridge with two lanes in either direction and major realignments of streets at either end.

Since then, the make up of the council has changed. Today, five out of nine voting members of the council oppose the bridge, and that could tilt even further against the bridge in January when Jackie Leung takes Steve McCoid’s seat.

The bridge’s future remains in the council’s hands. In August 2017, the state Land Use Board of Appeals ruled the bridge can’t go forward until city council decides on two points: whether to extend Salem’s urban growth boundary in the west and whether to amend the city’s transportation plan.

Without those decisions, state officials couldn’t complete an expansive analysis on the bridge and federal support wouldn’t be available.

To move those issues forward, Councilor Tom Andersen said, a councilor only has to ask to have the decisions put on the agenda. Andersen, an opponent to the bridge, said he doesn’t expect anyone to do that.

“I don’t see why they would,” he said. “We’re trying to work on solutions that address the real problem, not the perceived problem.”

Councilors say they oppose the bridge for varying reasons.

Councilors Hoy and Cara Kaser, who represents central Salem, worried building the bridge and streets would uproot many businesses and homes on both sides of the river, among other things. Councilor Matt Ausec, who represents Northwest Salem but couldn’t be reached for this article, also ran on opposing the bridge.

Councilors Andersen and Sally Cook, who represents southwest Salem, worry the costs — not only to build the bridge, but to maintain it — would likely fall to Salem residents.

“If it were to be built, it sucks up all of the transportation money for the next 20 years,” Andersen said. “We need to fix and maintain what we have, not spend a whole boatload of money.”

That’s nothing to say of what has already been spent on the Salem River Crossing. Since development got underway in 2006, the project has close to $6 million between the city of Salem, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

The three agencies have all pitched in to produce the sweeping analysis known as the environmental impact statement, which still hasn’t been completed. The city has spent $742,000 on the analysis, while state and federal agencies have combined for roughly $5.2 million.

Lou Torres, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said the state transportation agency is in a holding pattern right now.

“We’re waiting for the city to move on it,” he said. “It’s a community decision.”

Councilors who oppose the bridge want to alleviate congestion by reworking the current roads and traffic patterns in place. That led to the formation of the Congestion Relief Task Force, which will hold its final meeting Friday and issue recommendations to the city council.

The task force’s list of recommendations include improving signage for drivers, lessening pedestrian crossings that stall busy arterials, and opening access to Wallace Marine Park via Musgrave Avenue.

Its long-term recommendations are costlier and require more research. It suggests widening the Marion and Center street bridges, as well as the streets that flow into the bridges on either side. That could cost more than $150 million.

“There’s all sorts of things that can be done and they’ve all been talked about,” Andersen said.

Hoy, a member of the task force, said those decisions do better to solve traffic problems. He pointed to traffic analyses already produced that say the third bridge “might save four minutes on your commute.”

“People say ‘I want congestion relief. I want a new bridge.’ Well, one does not equal the other,” he said.

There is no price tag yet for the Salem River Crossing, but officials have estimated it could cost north of $400 million. And talks of raising that money have focused on property tax increases, gas taxes, tolls and more.

Torres, the state spokesman, said costs are always going to be a reality with a growing city like Salem. But he concedes it is the city’s prerogative to abandon the Salem River Crossing.

If the city makes no decisions, Torres said the state Transportation Department will have its own decisions to make. It will either cancel the project or issue what’s called a “no build alternative.”

Torres said the agency would strive for the latter, since cancelling the project outright might lead to the federal government asking for its money back. He was not able to elaborate how much money the state might be on the hook for, but Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said the nearly $5.2 million spent has all come from federal highway funds.

“(The federal agency) currently has only two options: We can select a ‘no build’ alternative and complete the (analysis) process, or we can cancel the project and pursue repayment of the expended federal funds,” Hecox said in an email.

To Andersen, those problems should have been considered before embarking on the project in the first place. He said that money has already been lost in previous decades when the city flirted with a third bridge.

“All sorts of money have been spent planning over the years,” he said. “I think it’s an extremely weak argument to say ‘We’re this far down the hole, let’s keep digging.’ ”

Have a story tip? Reporter Troy Brynelson: [email protected] or 503-357-6190.