Opponents to a new bridge spanning the Willamette have begun to cite a 1999 Oregon law that mandates against major highway construction when improvements to existing roadways will suffice.  Citizens have brought the regulation to the attention of the Salem City Council and the Oregon Transportation Commission (both who lead bridge efforts) this month.  These citizens claim that the many thousands of hours taxpayers have already paid for Salem River Crossing research – and the approximately $500 million locals would have to pay over the next 30 years if current bridge plans are approved and proceed – are, inappropriate and counter to official state policy.

Agencies supporting the process argue that all pro-bridge activities have been, and will continue to be, correct.

At issue is the 1999 Oregon Highway Plan* which states “since road construction is very expensive and funding is very limited… it is the policy of the State of Oregon to maintain highway performance… by improving system efficiency and management before adding capacity.”

The plan goes on to express official priorities for solving problems like the “rush hour” congestion on the Marion Street and Center Street Bridges.

The priorities of the 1999 Oregon Highway plan, (under Action 1G.1)

  • First, to protect the existing system’s functionality (by managing access, adding alternative means of transportation, etc.)
  • Second, to improve efficiency and capacity of existing highways (with minor improvements like widening shoulders or adding auxiliary lanes)
  • Third, to add capacity to the existing system (with adding new types of lanes or correcting alignments to accommodate different vehicles)
  • Last, to build new major improvements.  The Plan reads, “The lowest priority is to add transportation facilities such as a new highway or bypass.”

“The Plan says you must get the most out of the highways you have,” says Salem’s Jim Scheppke.  “When you step back from all the discussion of all the details, you see that this [3rd Bridge] project is simply inconsistent with the policies of the State of Oregon.”

At the November 5 Salem City Council meeting, Tom Tomczyk of Keizer brought the Oregon Highway Plan to the attention of Salem City Council, arguing that “Salem does not need, nor can it afford, a new bridge over the Willamette River.”  Tomczyk argued, “Improvements to the existing bridges and the street networks east and west of the bridges will meet the purpose and need of the project, and will be affordable.”

On November 14, Salem attorney John Gear, cited the same Oregon Highway Plan at the Formal Meeting of the Oregon Transportation Commission.

“The Salem River Crossing project reflects…  zombie planning notions, freeway-centric neanderthal thinking,” he said.  “How else can one explain a proposed $687 million bridge system that builds 11.2 miles of new state highway lanes including 2.7 miles of what would be the longest continuous elevated roadway inside Oregon?”

“Simply put,” he told the OTC, “Your Policy, The Oregon Highway Plan,  directs ODOT and local government to improve system efficiency and management before adding capacity.”

But ODOT and the City of Salem disagree.  When asked whether the Oregon Highway Plan poses any conflict with the current process of considering Alternative 4D, Julie Warncke, (Transportation Planning Manager City of Salem Public Works Department) and Dan Fricke, (Senior Transportation Planner, Oregon Department of Transportation Region 2,) say it does not.

Fricke maintains that though the 1999 Oregon Highway Plan is current, “ODOT is satisfied that actions taken to date are consistent with the requirements of the Oregon Highway Plan, including Action 1G.1 as that policy has been interpreted by the Oregon Department of Transportation.”

He goes on to say that OTC’s interpretation of that policy is that “ODOT is not required to analyze and implement every possible higher priority action that may be available to address a particular issue.”

* The 1999 Highway Plan was amended several times.  The text relevant to this article in the Plan’s most current version is “Policy 1G; Major Improvements, Action 1G.1.”  It can be found at http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/TD/TP/pages/OHP.aspx.  It begins on page 85 of the section, “Policy Elements (Goals, Policies & Actions.)”

Whats next?

The next work session for SRC will be held at Anderson Room of Salem Library on November 28th, 585 Liberty Street SE at 5:30 p.m.  (public observation allowed, no public testimony allowed)

The next Public Hearing on the SRC will be held by the Salem City Council on December 10 in Council Chambers, Room 240 at City Hall, 555 Liberty Street SE, 6:30 pm (public testimony will be allowed)

What kind of money are we talking about?

* If Alternative 4D were adopted, it would cost $687 million and would mean a savings of three minutes (from nine minutes to six minutes,) at peak 2006 hours.

* The SRC says that $30 million, maximum, would be available from the federal government to fund the “4D” bridge.  Local communities would be responsible for funding of about $500 million.
This means a tab of about $30 million every year for over 30 years.  The money would come from a combination of 1) a local fuel tax, 2) a vehicle registration surcharge, 3) a property tax increase and/or 4), a bridge toll.

* Critics of the project say the SRC has already gone significantly over budget.

* Out of state design firm, CH2M Hill of Colorado, has received 5 million as consultants for the project, with a contract of 7.5 million for 5 years.

* So far Julie Warncke of the City of Salem has spent 1,100 hours over the last six years.  Dan Fricke of ODOT has already spent 2,700 hours. Records are not available as to how much has been spent by ODOT staff other than Mr. Fricke.

* The City of Salem has contributed funds to match federal funds and provided $325,000.  It has also committed to an additional $65,000 of in-kind match for staff time.

* ODOT has spent more than 3 million for the SRC environmental impact statement.

“What is the SRC

* Salem River Crossing (SRC) is the name for several governmental agencies who set out to perform a specific task in 2006. They organized to reduce traffic congestion for all users (buses, cars, trucks, bikes) on the two bridges that cross the Willamette River and the connecting roads in downtown and West Salem,” according to the SRC site salemrivercrossing.org.

* The project is led by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the City of Salem.

* The ‘purpose and need’ for the SRC was established in 2006.  This was the year just prior to 2007 when the two bridges spanning the Willamette had their heaviest historical use by far (figure 1).

* Because of the 2006 directive, the SRC has evaluated alternatives for a crossing.  Their work has been based on the assumption that the Marion and Center Street bridges are congested and that “more traffic and population growth in the region are causing congestion that exceeds State and local standards.

* ODOT (figures 2)  show that traffic across the Willamette has actually gone down.

* Initially the SRC was to select a location and funding source by August of 2008, and have a Record of Decision by August 2009.  These deadlines have been moved back at least 3 times.

* After years of SRC study, four years after its original deadline, nine “Alternatives,” were presented to agencies and the public in spring 2012.

* In August 2012, a “preliminary preferred alternative” was identified by the SRC “Oversight Team” which consists of county, city and ODOT officials.

* It was Alternative 4D, a 2.7 mile elevated freeway and bridge to run from near Hope in West Salem to Pine and Hickory Street on the east side.

* Alternative 4D would build through a flood plain and wetlands and would constitute both the largest public works project in Salem history and also the longest elevated roadway in Oregon history.

* None of the SRC’s Alternatives are off the table yet.  The determination of a design is coming soon, and is necessary before final strategies are developed.

* Revised SRC time projections say that after the official “Alternative” is selected, (potentially but not necessarily, 4D,) environmental and financial research will be done.

* The current SRC schedule says the Record of Decision will be made in early 2014, 4+ years after the original deadline, by which time all funding and legal arrangements must be in place.

Many more aspects of the SRC and a 3rd Bridge are important.  All cannot be considered at this time.   Salem Weekly will continue its coverage.