Sunday, May 25, 2014

Freight and Candidate "Intransigence": A Myth about the Third Bridge

In today's paper, Editorial Editor and Columnist Dick Hughes laments local "intransigence" on the proposed Third Bridge:
All five candidates for the Polk County Board of Commissioners understood why an additional Salem bridge across the Willamette River is critical to the region’s economy. Several Salem City Council candidates did not; they were NIMBY-ists.

Sheesh. What other major U.S. city forces logging trucks and other big rigs to trundle through downtown? What other major riverfront city developed with only one set of traffic bridges? From Portland to Pittsburgh, other cities would be embarrassed by Salem’s intransigence.
Laments about NIMBYism
But as it happens, facts prove a little elusive. Sheesh.

2006 Purpose and Need Statement
While freight is ostensibly a part of the "Purpose and Need," freight is only a small proportion of the total traffic mix:

Freight is only 4% of trips across bridges
2006 Purpose and Need
Moreover, in the DEIS chapter 3.1 on "Traffic and Transportation," the word "freight" appears only 3 times in a document of 135 pages.

In the official documentation, freight movement is not identified as a big problem, and making freight movement easier is not a big part of the proposed solution. In fact, the owners of Zena Forest Products, a specialty lumber mill, have several times testified that congestion on the bridges is not a big problem for trucks related to their business.

Even for logging trucks, it's hardly "critical." It's more like a "convenience."

Problems with freight are exaggerated and part of popular myth as it tries to secure consent for a giant bridge and highway.

Of course better freight movement is desirable, but spending $400 million (and a billion or more is more likely) to benefit 4% is not a reasonable return on investment - especially if we blow our wad on a giant bridge and highway and fail to reinforce our existing bridges for the Cascadian Subduction Zone "big one."

Since Salemites would pay for most of it, it's not surprising Polk County is in favor of a giant bridge and highway. But if Polk County really needs it, they can contribute land and funds for it, outside of the Salem City limits.  If on these terms Polk County doesn't need it so badly after all, maybe they - and the Statesman Journal - will have interest in much lower cost mobility solutions that will take inefficient drive-alone trips off the bridges, make it easier to use existing capacity for all road users, and allow funds to be redirected to seismically reinforce our existing infrastructure against calamity.

(Here's an example of one lower cost mobility solution the paper could champion...Now that's more for your money!)

Maybe advertising knows more than editorial?
As for the other claims, about cities like Portland and Pittsburgh having multiple bridges. Well, first off, Portland and Pittsburgh were and are way bigger than Salem. It's true that it would have been nice for the early 20th century to have built additional small bridges for local traffic.

In 1894 Portland was about 10x bigger
and had four local bridges downtown
But as N3B has pointed out many times, the Willamette's channel in Portland is much narrower than in Salem, and our bottom land at Keizer and at Minto means we have an hourglass.  Our bridges are at the waist, the most logical place for a crossing. (Portland, it should be noted, didn't build bridges at Swan Island and Mock's Crest, or at what is now Ross Island and Oaks Bottom!)

Circa 1900, Portland was about 10 times larger than Salem, and it made sense for them to have multiple bridges. Construction was cheaper then, too. Portland has maintained the advantage in size and in wealth, and Salem probably missed the window of opportunity for new bridges in that streetcar era. But because of our size, we didn't need them. There are important reasons why Salem didn't build additional bridges earlier.

And there are important reasons why it doesn't make sense now.

The Salem River Crossing is not a small bridge. It is an urban highway and highway bridge, a big bridge, which harms cities, and it would cost way too much for merely marginal benefits in drive-alone mobility. And in light of climate change and in light of increasing obesity and other public health problems, we should want to work on ways to make it easy to choose not to drive. Larger policy goals are out of alignment with a giant bridge and highway.

It's not intransigence. It's wisdom.

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