Bridge district bill runs into opposition

Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, talks with the state House Rules Committee about his bill that would allow the creation of a special bridge district in the mid-Willamette Valley. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

The prospect of a new governing body empowered to build bridges drew more opposition than support at a public hearing on Monday.

House Bill 2974 would allow voters in Marion, Polk, Yamhill and Benton counties to create a special district to oversee bridge planning, maintenance and funding. Board members would be elected and any taxes would go before voters.

Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, pitched the idea mere days after Salem City Council in February effectively ended the Salem River Crossing, a long-proposed bridge across the Willamette River, by a 6-to-3 vote.

During an hour-long public hearing at the House Rules Committee, witnesses mostly opposed the idea over economic, environmental and logistical concerns.

Sid Friedman, a Yamhill County resident, said the district would only offer one solution when more are needed.

“We do have transportation issues, I think we all recognize that, but this bridge district would only be looking at one solution — a new bridge, or bridges — instead of taking a more comprehensive look and saying ‘Here’s what we truly need to address our transportation issues,’” he said.

Bob Cortright, a West Salem resident, said the proposal would add another transportation body to an area with no shortage of governing bodies, like the Salem-Keizer Area Transportation Study, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Mid-Willamette Valley Area Commission on Transportation.

“This would add another cook to an already crowded kitchen of agencies and units of government that are already responsible for our transportation system,” Cortright said. “We shouldn’t add another layer to this until we sort out who’s responsible for what.”

Cortright added the proposal ignores the needs of repairing current infrastructure and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“Not addressing those priorities first and starting to build more bridges just doesn’t move us in the right direction,” he said.

Kathleen Carl, owner of a farm east of Woodburn, worried the proposal would pave the way for more development through farm lands.

“It seems like it doesn’t matter that some of the richest land in the world is just in these counties we’re talking about and if we built a bridge north of here we go right into those,” she said.

Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron said the region does need another bridge, but he didn’t support Evans’ proposal because he didn’t know how the new district would interact with existing bodies and how it would wield its taxing authority.

“I will recommend we study this project a little bit further on our side and come together,” he said.

Marvin Sannes, owner of the West Salem City Hall, was the sole local to speak in favor of the project. He said he hoped the bridge district would kickstart the possibility of rerouting state Highway 22.

“I don’t know how we can do it but somehow I’d like it to recover (land near the Willamette River) and this would give us a discussion,” he said. 

Representatives on the committee spoke sparingly and took no action during the public hearing.

Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, did raise concerns over current districts being squeezed from their revenue. Oregon law limits total amounts property owners can be taxed, so when more taxes are imposed the earlier taxes shrink to accommodate — an effect known as “compression.”

“I guess my point is there are going to be other districts that take a hit if this goes through,” Sprenger said.

Several witnesses worried about the proposal’s power structure. As proposed, the bill gives every county a representative – equal vote, despite differences in populations. Evans told Salem Reporter he will adjust that.

Many speakers also worried about residents paying fees for bridges they don’t use. Evans said those kinds of fees are a fact of life.

“I don’t have children, I don’t use public schools, but I pay taxes for them,” he said. “I pass bonds to support the schools because it’s part of being in that community. I think many people would do the same thing with this – as long as they have a say.”

As to whether the region needs new bridges — rather than investing in other ways to reduce congestion — Evans said he was sure it did.

“I think many people wish that growth didn’t happen around them and I think people sometimes take correlates as cause. I do not believe if you build a bridge, there will be more traffic,” he said. “I believe there will be more traffic period. The question is will it be more effectively and efficiently managed?”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected], @TroyWB.

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