A February 10 Facebook post on the City of Salem website highlights an ongoing dispute over who may be expected to pay for a possible 3rd Bridge across the Willamette. The post states that “the city of Salem is not considering tolling any of Salem’s bridges.” But community observers say the Facebook post is disingenuous, because at the same time the post denies that tolling will be considered, it specifically states that tolling may be considered after an environmental impact review is completed and the process moves forward. They also claim the wording is deliberately misleading.

In the post, tolling is expressed by the term, “congestion pricing.” Congestion pricing is a payment strategy that has users pay for – or pay more for – a service when they use it during peak periods. Drivers on a road or bridge pay a higher rate to drive during the busiest parts of the day. The strategy brings in income while encouraging some to avoid driving peak times.

The method by which congestion pricing collects funds – is by tolling.

“The project funding strategy developed by the city and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) in 2012 identifies tolling as the primary funding source for the new bridge,” says Bob Cortright, a Salem transportation analyst, “It calls for a $1.50 toll on every trip across the river.”

Those who partnered with the City of Salem and ODOT to determine this funding strategy included elected officials representing Keizer, Marion Co., Polk Co., Salem-Keizer Transit District, plus the Federal Highway Administration. Called the Salem River Crossing Oversight Team, the group published a “Project Funding Strategy Memo” on March 6, 2015.

In it, tolling makes up the bulk of the funding.

Contrary to recent statements by Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett that tolling of existing bridges is against the law, the Federal Highway Administration does allow it in order that congestion pricing will be effective.

This is because tolling won’t work unless it includes existing bridges. “If only the new bridge is tolled,” Cortright says, “many people would choose to use the existing (non-tolled) bridges instead of the new one.” Not only would this mean there would be little relief for congestion, but also, “Tolls wouldn’t generate enough revenue to pay for the new bridge.”

It is a requirement of Oregon law that tolling be considered for road modernization processes such as the construction of a 3rd Bridge. ORS 366.292 says that the Oregon Department of Transportation  (ODOT) shall determine what portion of the costs of construction on a segment of highway might be paid for by tolls.

“The city’s [Facebook] statement is highly misleading,” Cortright says. “The bridge has to be paid for. To date, tolling has been identified as the primary funding source. The city’s Memorandum of Understanding with the state commits the city to study congestion pricing as a method to implement tolling.”

The city officials who wrote the Facebook post include City Manager Steve Powers, Deputy City Manager Kacey Duncan, City Attorney Dan Aitchison and Public Works Director, Peter Fernandez, says Kenny Larson, Communications & Community Engagement Manager for the City of Salem. The effort was made, according to Larson, because the city was concerned by a “rumor… that the City would begin tolling all of the bridges in Salem.” Larson adds, “Because we do not have a bridge design or cost estimates, and aren’t to the point of discussing financing, any talk about specific charges to motorists is speculation.”

Citizens like Cortright disagree, saying that the Funding Strategy Memo adopted is more than speculation.  It is, rather, Cortright says, “the conceptual funding strategy for the Salem River Crossing Preferred Alternative that was developed by the Project Oversight Team on December 11, 2014.”

Funding Strategy designed by Salem River Crossing team, March 2015

The single aspect of the Facebook post that is true, from Cortright’s perspective, is that “right now, at this moment, they’re not talking about how the bridge will be paid for.”

But he adds that this is only because the environmental impact statement hasn’t been finished.

Both the funding strategy and the current environmental impact statement are tailored to serve the “preferred alternative” bridge that was determined by Salem City Council and the Task Force in February 2014.

The structure is described and mapped on the City of Salem website. It would be the largest construction project in Salem’s history and was projected by the Task Force to cost $425-430 million – of which no more than $30 million would come from the federal government.

Moreover, it is entirely to accommodate the footprint of this specific bridge that Salem City Council in December 2016 voted to expand the city’s urban growth boundary.

Cortright is somewhat cynical about why the city is cagey about tolling when so many decisions have been made, on the record by regional partners, with parameters and price already largely settled.

“It’s simple,” he says, “the politics of a $500 million bridge become much more challenging when you start talking about who’s going to pay for it. The city knows that people are less concerned if they assume someone else, like the state or federal government, will pay.”

Talk of tolling, says, Cortright, “is a wake up call to local citizens that a new bridge is really expensive, and the someone who is going to pay – is us.”

Since this has been, in part, reduced to a “he said, she said” sort of argument, we thought it might be helpful to post a link to a copy of the city’s funding strategy memo, so that readers can fact check the city for themselves.

Here’s a link from the city’s website on the UGB amendment decision:

http://www.cityofsalem.net/Departments/CommunityDevelopment/Planning/CurrentPlanning/CA16-04/Documents/Project%20Funding%20Strategy%20Memo%20(Requested%20by%20Kathy%20Lincoln).pdf

The city included this document in its official record only because it was requested by a member of the public.