The Marion and Center Street bridges pictured last summer. (Salem Reporter files)
Two Salem councilors on opposite sides of the now-defunct Salem River Crossing are coming together to help the city’s congestion issues.
Councilors Cara Kaser and Jim Lewis say they will seek approval of the Salem City Council of a motion directing city staff to start planning for 17 traffic changes in Salem that the Congestion Relief Task Force recommended last summer. The issue is scheduled for Monday, March 11.
Councilors rarely file motions together, but Kaser and Lewis are linked by their wards and their votes last month at a decisive city council meeting.
They are the only two councilors whose wards encompass West Salem, home to many residents who cross the Willamette River daily and who feel a third bridge would relieve the city’s congestion.
And they split on the Salem River Crossing, a project that had been 13 years in planning. Lewis, elected in 2014 and an ardent supporter of the bridge, voted in favor. Kaser, elected in 2016, was one of six who ultimately voted against it.
In the fallout, which included angry emails and a quarrelsome West Salem Neighborhood Association meeting, the two met for coffee and raised the idea of working together on solutions. A joint motion accomplished two things, they said: it showed that councilors still want to help congestion, and that people who disagree can still share goals.
“For me, it’s really about showing the public that even though we are on different sides of this issue we can still work together to solve a problem,” said Kaser.
Lewis said he hoped that a united motion would speed along the congestion fixes.
“With the bridge turned down, the only thing we really had left on the table was the recommendations, so why not move forward on them as quickly as possible?” he said. “Quite frankly, by process of elimination, they’re really all we have left to focus on right now."
City staff are working with the two councilors on the motion’s language, they said, but they envision it will tell staff to start planning the nuts-and-bolts of implementing the congestion recommendations,
“We want to move this forward and it’s to direct staff to create an action plan to enact those recommendations,” Kaser said.
Both councilors said the task force’s recommendations are broad, some of which cannot be done by the city of Salem alone, but they wanted to get a better idea to start moving forward.
“I think council needs more information about the specifics of each one of the items so we can make decisions about which ones to move forward on first,” Lewis said.
The task force met a handful times from last February to September to examine how to improve traffic in ways that didn’t include building a bridge. Kaser and Lewis both represented council on the task force, as did Councilor Chris Hoy and Mayor Chuck Bennett.
The task force recommended adding more mass transit downtown, extending Marine Drive, limiting pedestrian crossings and turns at high-traffic intersections, improving signal timing and reducing the bottleneck of rush hour, among other things.
Lewis said he will continue to support efforts to build bridges in the region. He said he is keeping a close on eye a recent bill proposed by Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, that could bring several counties together to form a special district.
Councilor Chris Hoy said he supported Kaser and Lewis' joint motion.
“We don’t always agree on stuff, but we can always work together on common ground,” he said. “That’s what I see this being all about and I’m completely supportive of that.”
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