On April 24, Salem city council took a vote considered a victory for community members who oppose efforts to build a 3rd bridge across the Willamette.

On that night, council voted 5-4 against approving an interagency agreement between the city and the State of Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD) that would have advanced the project.

How did it begin?

The vote followed a December 5, 2016 decision, when city council approved an ordinance, Bill 14-16, which expanded the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), amended the Salem Area Comprehensive Plan and the Salem Transportation System Plan, and took an exception to Statewide Planning Goal 15 concerning the Willamette River Greenway goal.  

These actions were intended to further the Salem River Crossing Project which includes a bridge crossing the Willamette River, the construction of Marine Drive NW, ramps connecting Marine Drive NW to Oregon Route 22, and other transportation objectives related to a 3rd Bridge.

Council’s vote was the culmination of several years of work and coordination that included the City of Salem, Polk County, and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).

A state agency appealed

In December DLCD and, separately, a group of citizens, filed separate appeals of the decision with the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) expressing concerns with the ordinance. 

While the citizen’s appeal continues, (see story, City attorney ribs citizen’s advocates), several agencies, including DLCD and the City of Salem staff, met to find common ground so that DLCD’s appeal might be withdrawn.

A memorandum of understanding created

As a result of their discussions, DLCD and City staff came to an agreement and executed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) so DLCD was able to withdraw its appeal. The MOU required City staff to work with the agency to prepare an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) that was consistent with the terms of the MOU, and present the IGA to the City Council with a recommendation that Council approve it. The agencies worked together to draft the IGA so that both agreed with its terms. The bridge described by the IGA was was in the same position with the same impacts at each end as the project the council imagined in December, but had only two lanes, one going in each direction, and accommodations made for other means of crossing such as pedestrian and bicycle. 

Salem city council was needed to approve the IGA on April 24 so the process could move forward.

Councilor Kaser makes her motion

Topic introduced by City of Salem attorney Dan Atchison

On April 24 the conversation was opened by City of Salem attorney Dan Atchison. This was proper, as city code (SRC 2.320) requires the City Attorney to defend for the city “any action, suit, matter, cause or proceeding… before any commission or officer in which the city is a party or has an interest.”

Atchison encouraged council to approve the IGA.

Instead, Ward 1 Councilor Cara Kaser made a motion to deny the agreement.

Conversation 

In the course of the discussion, several councilors objected to the IGA. Ward 3 Councilor Brad Nanke objected to the reliance on “congestion pricing,” or tolling, for funding for the project. Ward 2 Councilor Tom Andersen called the bridge “unnecessary and unbuildable” and said it “advances a mistake” of poor planning and expense over many years.

In several exchanges with City of Salem’s Department of Public WorksPeter Fernandez, Fernandez revealed that it was City of Salem staff that brought the idea of tolling into the IGA. Fernandez also said it was legally impossible to toll existing bridges, which meant that only the new structure, a two-lane crossing with one lane in each direction, would be tolled.

Council rejects the IGA

When the vote occurred, 5 councilors, including Kaser, elected to reject the proposed IGA. They included Andersen, Ward 5’s Matt Ausec, Ward 6’s Chris Hoy and Ward 7’s Sally Cook.  Opposed to Kaser’s motion and in favor of the IGA were Ward 3’s Nanke, Steve McCoid of Ward 4 and Jim Lewis of Ward 8.

A vote with impact

Robert Cortright, spokesman for a citizen’s group who opposed the December council vote, says the new vote is significant. 

Council’s “rejecting the IGA is important because it was a decision not to move forward with the 3rd Bridge and it signals the city is changing its position… it is important to remember that the old city council rushed to make this decision; there was just one public hearing and virtually no discussion or debate by the city council before adoption.   The result is that important facts have simply been ignored or misrepresented:  the third bridge is hugely expensive; it would cost more than our region expects to have for road improvements over the next 20 years. It would devastate neighborhoods. The major proposed funding source is tolling and for tolling to work, the existing bridges would have to be tolled.”

Mayor Bennett frustrated

Salem’s Mayor, Chuck Bennett expressed disappointment over the 5-4 vote. He said the decision, celebrated by bridge opponents, didn’t actually “achieve anything,” and that rejecting the IGA didn’t stop a 3rd bridge at all. He said the vote would “just let it go back to the… huge bridge” plan.

Citing traffic projections, Bennett also noted, “there’s no question we have to look at another crossing.” 

The vote, he said, only meant that Salem voter’s wishes couldn’t be heard, presumably in a future election about approving a bond.