Members of Salem Bridge Solutions, in green shirts, seen speaking and attending a Salem City Council meeting in November. The group worked with business groups in recent weeks in a last-ditch effort to keep the Salem River Crossing alive. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)
In the office of the Home Builders Association of Marion and Polk Counties, those supporting the Salem River Crossing assembled last week to plan what could be a last-ditch effort to keep alive prospects for a third bridge.
There sat leaders of the pro-bridge group Salem Bridge Solutions, including co-founders Mike and Craig Evans, and representatives from the home builders association, the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Mid-Valley Association of Realtors.
Mayor Chuck Bennett just days earlier had laid out a stark warning in his State of the City Address, saying that the 13-year-old project was “teetering on the brink of failure.”
The organizations decided to pour on a political push to avoid that fate, hoping to turn around city councilors who have publicly said they won’t advance the project. The project has drawn the attention of environmental groups, transportation enthusiasts, budget hawks and many who felt a third bridge would relieve traffic on their morning commute.
“We were talking about how we can get the word out to people about what’s happening so they can get involved,” said Mike Evans. “As we talked about it, we said what if we came up with a website and we could get a message that people could quickly understand – get it in front of them – maybe it’d take off and they’d pay attention.”
Evans said the group landed on a direct message: “Salem City Council: Don’t kill the bridge.”
The bridge is perhaps facing its two final appearances in the public arena in the coming weeks. The Salem City Council hosts a work session tonight to consider the bridge’s history and logistics. There won’t be an opportunity for citizen comments. Then, the council is scheduled to convene Feb. 11 to decide whether staffers can complete an important environmental impact analysis.
Preliminary planning the Salem River Crossing started in 2006 and has so far cost at least $9 million in public dollars, mostly from state and federal transportation agencies.
But the council is now dominated by first- and second-term councilors who won office after campaigning against the bridge. Those who openly oppose the bridge say it could disrupt homes, businesses and the environment, and be a burdensome expense.
The Realtors, home builders, the Salem chamber and Salem Bridge Solutions argue the bridge would reduce traffic congestion that they say hurts the economy, residents’ quality of life and the ability of ambulance and firetrucks to respond to emergencies.
The groups don’t normally work closely together to support the bridge, they said, but felt coming together made sense with the council decision imminent.
“We saw the value in working together in educating the public about the council preparing to kill the bridge project,” said Mike Erdmann, CEO of the home builders association, in an email. “The new bridge is a critical need for the community for decades to come, and with such overwhelming public support for a new bridge, we felt it was worth doing all we can to communicate that to the council.”
The association represents more than 700 contractors. Erdmann said the bridge would accommodate West Salem, the region of the city he said that is poised to grow the most in the years ahead.
The plan is to drum up support and pressure Salem councilors. The Realtors, home builders and Salem chamber have blasted out emails to thousands of businesses and people in the region urging them to attend the upcoming meetings, email councilors and donate funds.
“The new ‘progressive’ majority of the Salem City Council has given every indication they plan to permanently kill the project next month,” reads the email. “Why? Because they believe that you should be using bikes, buses and carpools rather than cars.”
Tom Hoffert, CEO of the Salem chamber since Jan. 1, said businesses benefit from better traffic flow, whether for shipments or workers' commutes. He said the email aimed to let the chamber's 1,200 businesses know the project could be near its end.
“We’ve had members that are a little surprised that this would be a potential killing-of-the-bridge,” he said. “They were a little shocked that something that was moving down the tracks in a very orderly and community-based initiative would be taken offline due to changes in city council seats.”
Salem Bridge Solutions launched a website called Dontkillthebridge.com. Besides asking readers to contact councilors, it poses a short survey about whether the reader supports the bridge. Mike Evans said more than 900 people have responded, 89 percent favoring the bridge.
“The vote that’s going to happen Feb. 11 is do-or-die for the bridge,” said Evans. “If all six vote in lockstep… then they won’t allow the environmental impact statement to be finished and the bridge will die.”
Whether their efforts will sway any councilors could be clear tonight. Councilors Jackie Leung, Sally Cook and Tom Andersen are all featured on Dontkillthebridge.com as among the six councilors whose minds citizens should try to change. The three told Salem Reporter they did not notice an inordinate amount of messages supporting the bridge.
“I’ve received a number of emails both for and against the bridge, from individuals in my ward and some general emails that go to all councilors and some that come to me specifically,” said Leung, in her first month as a councilor. She said she felt there’s been an “equal number on both sides.”
Cook said she hoped people understood councilors are not taking the decision lightly.
“If we’re going to make a decision that’s a big decision like this… I think it’s important we all have our emotions cool,” she said.
Meanwhile, Salem residents who have opposed the bridge and foils to those business groups say they aren’t fretting in these final weeks. Jim Scheppke, a former director of the State Library of Oregon who helped councilors campaign, said their efforts started years ago.
“What we did was elect six city councilors beginning with Tom Andersen in 2014, who all campaigned against the third bridge,” he said in an email. “They all had opponents who supported the third bridge. Elections matter. Now they’re keeping their campaign promises.”
Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @TroyWB.