According to Federal regulations, if work is not begun on the Salem River Crossing “Preferred Alternative” by September 30, 2019, all of the Federal funds that were spent on the planning process have to be repaid to the Federal Highway Administration.
We are talking here about around $8 million dollars that could have built sidewalks and pedestrian crossings and bike lanes and street improvements in Salem.
If this happens, you will no doubt see arrows launched at the five Salem City Councilors who have effectively blocked the project from going forward. They will be vilified by 3rd Bridge enthusiasts for our having to send precious transportation dollars back to the Federal government.
But if this happens, who’s really responsible?
For the answer to that question you need to go back to August 12, 2012, and the final meeting of the Salem River Crossing Task Force. According to the official ODOT SRC website, the purpose of the Task Force was to “provide a balanced representation of stakeholder interests.” In August of 2012 the group had been meeting for nearly six years to study traffic problems and to investigate alternatives. At their final meeting the Task Force was asked to vote on their preference for going forward with several variations on a new Salem river crossing, or to not proceed — the so-called “No Build” alternative.
In the final vote of the 22 members present, none of the “build” options received a majority of the vote. Alternative 4D, the $800 million monstrosity that was later rejected by the Salem City Council, received the most votes with 10. But seven of the Task Force members voted for “No Build’ and one member who had to leave early also voiced her strong preference for “No Build” earlier in the meeting, making a total of eight. It must be noted that all of the representatives of Salem neighborhood associations voted for “No Build.”
And who voted for the “build” options? Six were staff members representing local governments and three represented business interests, including one who had to declare a conflict of interest because of property he owned in the path of the “build” options. We should question why these bureaucrats and businessmen were stacking the Task Force to begin with. Was the Task Force designed to reach a foregone conclusion to build a 3rd Bridge? To many it seems that way.
Whether that was true or not, it is clear that the Task Force never came together on a strong consensus to move forward on a “preferred alternative” for the 3rd Bridge. After six years of meetings, nearly all of the ordinary citizens on the Task Force remained unconvinced that the project was viable.
Darlene Strozut, who represented the Highland Neighborhood Association on the Task Force, spoke for all of the neighborhood associations when she summed up the meeting this way: “All neighborhood association representatives voted for either no build or widening/improving the current bridges. Assuming none of those have changed their minds, going forward with a recommendation not supported by any of the impacted neighborhood representatives, plus no financing plan, seems unrealistic.”
It should be clear from this that the Salem River Crossing project went off the rails six years ago, at the final meeting of the Task Force, and that should have been the end of it.
Instead, the bureaucrats and business interests who pushed it from the start put it back on track. The recommendation of the Task Force, such as it was, went to the project Oversight Team, comprised of elected officials. Included there were long-time 3rd Bridge enthusiasts like former Salem City Councilor Dan Clem and Marion County Commissioner Sam Brentano. They chose to ignore the fact that it was mostly only the bureaucrats and the business interests who wanted a 3rd Bridge. They then proceeded to waste millions of our Federal dollars on grandiose plans that had never attracted strong support from the citizens who would be asked to pay for them.
If we end up having to repay those millions to the Feds, they will be the ones responsible for this wasteful debacle.