On August 9, Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) sided with a group of citizen petitioners who said that Salem City Council’s action last December to expand the city’s urban growth boundary (UGB) to permit construction of a bridge over the Willamette River was not done properly.

The matter was sent back to Salem City Council.

After considering the written and oral arguments made in Deumling vs. City of Salem (2016-0126), LUBA affirmed three citizen objections.

As a result, Salem’s UGB is not expanded, and the Salem City Council will now decide whether to try to expand it again or change course and pursue other options for addressing the peak hour auto congestion problems.

“Perhaps the biggest irony is that the third bridge wouldn’t reduce traffic congestion,” says Robert Cortright, a co-petitioner and spokesperson.  “Yes, congestion is frustrating and it’s intuitive to think that adding another bridge will somehow ‘solve’ or significantly reduce the region’s traffic problems, but it’s just not true.”

Cortright feels it important to put the $425 million price tag for a third bridge in perspective. “That’s as much as the region’s budget for all roadway expansion for the next 20 years,” he notes. “As for new funding, there’s no evidence of public support for the funding plan that calls for increased gas taxes and vehicle registration fees for all of Marion and Polk County and a $1.50 toll on every crossing – including the existing bridges –  to pay for a new bridge.” 

Without a new bridge, city studies say congestion in the Salem area will almost triple:  increasing by 262% over the next 20 years.   But the same studies say that adding a third bridge makes almost no difference:  congestion would still grow by 250% over what we experience today.  “That’s an imperceptible difference,” Cortright says, “and certainly not worth a half billion dollar investment.” 

Cortright and the other citizen petitioners who brought the appeal urge that Salem pursue a number of less-costly actions to address traffic congestion problems rather than try to repeat the UGB expansion process to accommodate the new bridge on the new route.

“Instead of continuing to fuss about building a bridge we can’t afford and that won’t help,” suggests Cortright, “it’s time to move forward with  things that we can do to make the existing bridges work better. The good news is that there are a whole bunch of things that we can afford to do and will make a difference.”

Suggestions including having the City improve traffic flow during peak hours by taking advantage of funds provided in the recent state transportation funding bill, which increased funding for Cherriots and provided initial funds to seismically retrofit and improve the Center Street Bridge.

The LUBA ruling puts decision-making authority in the hands of Salem City Council. If Council decides to try expanding the UGB again, the public process and hearings required for an expansion would have to be repeated.

But, “there are many other viable solutions to address the flow of traffic over Salem’s two car bridges,” says a petitioners statement. “The City Council should begin the process to explore these workable options.”

“The reality is that the third bridge just isn’t a workable solution,” says Cortright. “We can’t afford it, it won’t solve our traffic congestion problems, and it would devastate parks and neighborhoods.”