Saturday, May 25, 2013

Who Needs Maintenance? Marion St. Bridge rates much worse than Skagit Bridge

How is it that "shiny and new and expensive" so often trumps "repair and maintain"?

Skagit River Bridge Collapse:  Seattle Times
During their most recent published inspections, the Skagit Bridge was rated 57.4, but the Marion St. Bridge rated only 29.7 and the Center St. Bridge rated almost the same as the Skagit bridge at 61.8.  These bridges are in need of repair!  So why the rush to plan and build a new bridge?

Marion St. Bridge = 29.7 rating; Skagit Bridge was 57.4
We need a bridge because we need a bridge...It's a glorious tautology!

Yesterday the Statesman came out with a draft for the Sunday editorial "lessons from the Skagit bridge collapse."  Mostly it's about the Columbia River Crossing, but it talks about Salem, too.  Or around Salem.

Last week’s freeway bridge collapse in Washington state illustrated the importance of pushing ahead with Oregon’s major bridge-construction projects, including the Columbia and Salem river crossings....

The Alberta trucking company, which was transporting drilling-equipment housing from Canada to Vancouver, Wash., said it had the proper permits....

Third bridge would benefit valley, coast
The Salem River Crossing also should be on the list of Oregon’s most-important projects. It would build the long-awaited third Willamette River traffic bridge in Salem.

Critics have lambasted the proposed location, downriver from the Center and Marion street bridges, as too close in proximity to sufficiently ease West Salem traffic congestion. But this would be a regional bridge, not just for West Salem. 
The designed location would create the essential link to Highway 22 on the west while circumventing downtown Salem on the east. Since the late 19th century, the Polk County economy has blossomed whenever a Willamette River bridge was built or improved. That would be the case again.

With its more-direct connection between Interstate 5 and Highway 22, the Salem River Crossing would be a tremendous economic asset to Polk and Yamhill counties and the coast, as well as to West Salem and the rest of the Salem area.

And if either the Center or Marion street bridge were ever closed by an earthquake, or even a several-hour traffic problem, residents and businesses alike would be grateful for a new bridge built to modern seismic standards.
A few observations...

1)  Did it register that the bridge collapse was a direct result of fossil fuel extraction?  That's a tart irony, as many others have pointed out.

2)  The draft editorial is not real strong on the benefits for Salem.  Mostly it talks about how great it is for Polk County (see the red!).  And how it "circumvents" downtown, like downtown is a problem to be avoided. If it's so great for the outlying areas, why is Salem slated to bear most of the cost?

3)  Notwithstanding the claim that it would be a "regional" bridge, the paper on Monday observed that the bridge was benefiting development in West Salem - that it was a bridge for West Salem, not a regional bridge.
Some of the SRC hinges on decisions made decades ago, [Peter] Fernandez said, when planners aimed at preserving fertile farmlands east of Salem and set growth sights west. The largest chunk of Salem’s developable land within its Urban Growth Boundary is west of the Willamette.
4)  Yesterday's published article "Oregon's Bridges may be at Risk" fails to mention the condition of the Center and Marion St Bridges.  (And it could be an institutional problem in reporting that the person who wrote a story on them in 2007 did not also write yesterday's follow-up.) Salem also has several smaller bridges that have deferred maintenance and replacement needs.  What about them?

Oops!  Forgot about "structurally deficient" Marion St Bridge
5) Finally, and most importantly, the paper has consistently chosen not to ask whether a giant bridge and highway is the most cost effective solution to any problem. On its face, it's hard to see how expansion and new construction is more cost effective than preservation and repair. Moreover, if there were an earthquake, don't you think folks would prefer to have a seismically reinforced bridge that offers a direct connection to downtown than a new bridge and by-pass that requires a long, long detour?  Why is ignoring deferred maintenance for significantly more expensive new construction a good thing?

It's not gonna happen, of course, but the paper has yet to think critically about the nature of the actual set of problems and the return on investment, including opportunity costs, for the proposed giant bridge and highway.

If it did, it would have to mount an actual argument over why preservation and maintenance shouldn't be prioritized over new construction and expansion; why transit, staggered work schedules, and smaller construction projects shouldn't be preferred over new construction and expansion - generally why a host of smaller projects and solutions, a suite of conservative solutions, would not be better than a megaproject.  That case has not been made or even attempted.

This is a sham - and a shame.


Brian said...

Excellent post. I just sent a link, and excerpts, to Michael Bennett and Dick Hughes at the Statesman Journal. Here's part of what I told them:
I hope you guys read Salem Breakfast on Bikes every day. I do. Great perspective on local transportation, land use, mixed use issues. Well-written and well-informed.

Today they take the Statesman Journal to task -- entirely appropriately, in my view also -- for your news and editorial coverage of Salem's current deteriorating bridges and the unneeded Third Bridge.

You really need to take a look at how well you are independently and critically serving as a genuine "town square" for the entire citizenry of the Salem area.

Churning out news stories and editorials that are essentially unthinking support for City of Salem press releases won't cut it.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Thanks for the kind words!

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Don't know whether the comments to a story get archived and/or disappear behind the paywall, but if they persist, here's a link to the comments on the published editorial.

The clash between a "conventional wisdom" (floating out there, unmoored to fact) and official, published statements by the River Crossing team is stark:

Conventional Wisdom - it's a regional solution. Fact - regional through traffice is a tiny proportion of bridge crossing trips.

Conventional Wisdom - the Feds will pay for it and it's easier to get Federal money for new construction. Fact - Feds are highly unlikely to pay for this bridge and highway. And if it's easier to get money for new construction, the correct editorial stance is to advocate for a change in Federal policy to make maintenance money easier to get!

Conventional Wisdom - we've needed a bridge since the 70s and 80s. Fact (and some opinion) - We're in the 21st century! and if Eisenhower-era solutions were plausible in the 70s and 80s, they are totally problematic in the 2010s.

And so on...

Here's a link to a N3B post on myths and facts.

Anonymous said...

The S-J comments section=Pure comedy gold.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Not sure if this is worth a post or not...

Today's story, "Process protects state's bridges: Engineers' works help to focus funds," kinda misses the point.

I don't hear anyone questioning whether the process is flawed. What I hear people questioning is how we make policy and funding decisions with this information.

Buried in the piece is this:

[S]ufficiency ratings are not foolproof indicators of whether a bridge is considered safe. Before the Washington bridge plunged into the Skagit River, it had a sufficiency rating of 57.4. It wasn’t considered “structurally deficient,” but it was considered “functionally obsolete.”

State officials warn against reading too much into these terms, saying that they aren’t always connected to safety.

“It’s more of a way to measure what priority a bridge should be for very limited funds,” said Dave Thompson, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The point is that we don't make enough funds available for maintenance and instead screw around with building more, big projects we can't afford to maintain with our "very limited funds."

That's why the proposal for a giant bridge and highway is foolish.