The Marion and Center street bridges pictured last summer. Salem City Council are expected to decide the fate of a long-proposed third bridge on Monday night. (Salem Reporter files)
Salem City Council will be asked Monday night to decide the fate of the Salem River Crossing by choosing between two futures.
City staff is giving councilors their pick of two letters that are really road maps for the bridge project.
Both letters, available on the city's website, address Federal Highway Administration and the Oregon Department of Transportation. The similarities mostly end there.
One letter says Salem's nine-member council agreed to provide information sought by the state Land Use Board since August 2017, setting the stage for state officials to complete an expansive environmental review required before the bridge can be approved, designed and built.
That letter would keep the bridge project alive.
The other says council voted against answering the land use questions. It says the state and federal transportation agencies can still complete the environmental analysis but with a recommendation that no bridge is built.
That letter would essentially kill this iteration of the long-discussed third bridge.
The recommendation posted alongside the staff report urges councilors to ask Mayor Chuck Bennett to sign one or the other. Bennett said councilors can introduce their own motions but added he hoped a decision would be made.
"I think we'll ask the council to be very clear: this is an up-or-down vote," said Bennett.
Planning for 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.
As proposed, the bridge would connect the city from the Highland neighborhood to West Salem. It was pitched to cut traffic, which many have said clogs the Marion and Street bridges and is expected to get worse as the city grows.
But the council is dominated mostly of first- and second-term councilors who won after campaigning against the bridge. Those who oppose it say the bridge would disrupt homes, businesses and the environment, and be a big expense for the city to bear.
The state has been after the city since August 2017 to provide information it needs to advance the required environmental studies.
Councilor Jim Lewis, who campaigned in support of the bridge, moved in November to have council give the state the information. Councilors postponed addressing that idea until now.
Complicating the decision is whether state transportation officials and the Salem-Keizer Transportation Study, a regional body, would be asked to pay back the federal government for the millions of grant dollars spent on the project. A Federal Highway Administration official said in the work session the agency need the environmental analysis completed by the end of September.
"It's one of those things where time is of the essence right now," Bennett said.
The meeting Monday is expected to be well-attended. In recent weeks, proponents of the bridge have launched a new website and blasted out emails en masse to encourage businesses and residents to show up in solidarity.
City staff told Salem Reporter they will offer overflow seating at Salem Public Library.
Public comments received by the city and posted online ahead of the meeting show many residents remain divided on the bridge.
Toni Jones, of West Salem, wrote that Salem is growing "by leaps and bounds" and appropriate infrastructure for residents and the local economy.
"A third bridge doesn't just benefit the residents of West Salem, but anyone who travels through the downtown core, including transport of goods via truck," Jones said.
Erik Andersson, the newly appointed president of the Strategic Economic Development Corporation, said agricultural businesses and food processing companies need efficient transportation.
"We are competing on a global level, and our local industries need to compete with maximum efficiency and expeditiousness," Andersson said.
Bob Coe, a West Salem resident, said the bridge as proposed isn't the answer to the region's transportation problems.
"Some intersections may improve for a time with a third bridge, others will worsen. Clots of congestion will shift. Some streets will experience temporary relief, then soon fill up again," Coe said. "Complaints will percolate up from different quarters. Bridge advocates will soon agitate for a fourth bridge (if you look closely, they already are)."
Linda Bierly, of West Salem, also opposed the bridge and said staff time and energy would be better spent maintaining what's currently in place and planning for mass transit. Bierly closed the letter with appreciation for the weight of council's decision ahead.
"I want to say how much I appreciate your hard work and due diligence on this very controversial but important issue," Bierly said. "Your responsibility is great and I appreciate your thoughtful consideration on behalf of all the citizens of Salem, both now and into the future."
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