Congestion task force to recommend 18 ideas to ease downtown traffic

The Marion Street Bridge in early September. A task force has since February worked on ideas to cut traffic congestion around the bridges and will soon present ideas to Salem City Council. (Moriah Ratner/Special to Salem Reporter)

Travel times over Salem’s downtown bridges could be cut down with a series of modest changes recommended recently by the city’s Congestion Relief Task Force.

That is good news for those making the stop-and-go trips over the bridges. City officials warn, though, that commuters could slowly see congestion return over the next decade.

Now it’s up to the Salem City Council to settle on the immediate remedies.

The task force finished months of work earlier this month, advancing 18 ideas that include building a new road, adding new signs to guide drivers, installing speed limit signs that adjust for traffic flow and closing some sidewalks.

“I think the thing that’s really good to know was this committee was absolutely committed,” Mayor Chuck Bennett said. Bennett served on the task force with councilors Jim Lewis, Cara Kaser and Chris Hoy.

The 18 ideas are listed below. Only four were recommended unanimously. The task force will also highlight a handful of ideas that could be researched further.

The task force started work in February, charged with easing traffic congestion around Marion and Center street bridges in ways that don’t involve the proposed Salem River Crossing. The task force got help from the city’s public works department and firms DKS Associates, Angelo Planning and Cogito Partners.

While ideas ranged to building new roads at a cost of millions of dollars, Bennett, Kaser and Lewis said the task force decided to hone the list to short-term tweaks.

“What can we do quickly, inexpensively and will have a positive effect?” Lewis said, describing the task force’s charter. Hoy couldn’t be reached for comment.

Costs are yet to be determined. Some proposals will be presented with cost estimates, but Julie Warncke, the city’s transportation planning manager, said the price tag won’t be clear until the council focuses on specific recommendations.

“It really depends on them,” said Warncke. “They’ll say ‘We think these two are the easiest to bite off, what’s the next step?’”

The effects might be fleeting. A draft written by public works staffers advised councilors to keep in mind that traffic is still expected to get worse over the next decade.

“The benefits are not long-lived. Travel times initially would be reduced by as much as 50 percent, while some areas would not see any reduction,” the draft said. “Travel times would return to preconstruction levels within 10 years.”

Task force members, however, split on the wording during the final meeting. Kaser worried the language was too direct.

“It just reads very absolutely to me, which I’m always wary of. This will do this, this won’t do this. I think it could be better. ‘The benefits may not be long-lived.’ ‘Travel times initially could be reduced,’ and then ‘travel times could return to preconstruction levels within 10 years of being built,'” she said during the meeting.

Bennett and Lewis contended softening the language would downplay the risk that congestion poses and traffic studies that have already been conducted. The task force settled on noting the points were based on current traffic research.

Kaser, who applauded the task force for steering away from discussing a third bridge, said she was trying to be clear about the task force’s responsibilities.

“We were looking at current conditions. We didn’t base our analyses on future conditions, we were looking at current things,” she said. “I think we met six times. To me it seems disingenuous to say you did all this work but our future problems are going to be so significant, so what’s the point?”

Bennett and Lewis told Salem Reporter they are concerned for future congestion, but they too supported the fixes, however brief, and the report that will go before city council.

“There aren’t any long-term solutions that aren’t wildly expensive,” Bennett said. “It will be a challenge for city councilors now and in the future how to deal with these long-term growth slopes that indicate we’re going to have heavier and heavier traffic.”

Lewis and Bennett also said they expect there will be an opportunity for the public to have its say on the proposals. No public comment was allowed before the task force.

The 18 recommendations:

· Improve signs that guide drivers near and on the bridges.

· Delay pedestrian crossings at some crosswalks during peak traffic.

· Remove the barrier on Musgrave Avenue, east of Wallace Road, and allow traffic to drive through Wallace Marine Park.

· Install signs that tell drivers how long travel to certain places will be based on the traffic.

· Install speed limit signs on state Highway 22 that adjust based on traffic.

· Discourage parking at peak traffic, likely by increasing costs at parking structures or on the street level.

· Increase mass transit circulation in the downtown core.

· Create park-and-ride services at Wallace Marine Park, as well as ways to walk, bike or take a shuttle.

· Add extra lanes on Taggart Drive.

· Add a median to stop turns from Wallace Road Northwest onto Taggart Drive.

· Close the north crosswalk at Front Street Northeast and Court Street Northeast.

· Improve timing of traffic signals at strategic areas.

· Improve the speed of emergency response times on the bridges.

· Extend Marine Drive.

· Work with major employers and the state to develop a “commute trip reduction plan” that includes flexible work hours.

· Work with major employers and the state to incentivize people to bike, walk, bus, carpool or otherwise to reduce the number of drivers.

· Build more pedestrian and bicycle connections to the Union Street Bridge.

· Plan for future land-use.

CORRECTION: The task force’s recommendations could reduce traffic congestion but proposals that could cut travel times by half were not accepted. An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested such proposals were adopted.