STEVE EMERSON

February 15, 2008

Caught downtown at rush hour and cursing the traffic backing up behind the bridges, people see that the bottleneck to West Salem seems a problem that should be fixed.

I’ve examined and discussed all of the proposals at task force meetings, debated the pros and cons with my neighbors, thought about the trade-off between neighborhoods and traffic, wondered about funding and seldom questioned the need for a third bridge.

I’d had plenty of preconceptions about the causes of the problem, most of which were dismissed in conversations with the engineers who’ve modeled the current and projected traffic patterns. I learned that the vast majority of the traffic does not comprise trucks running between Interstate 5 and greater Polk County or the coast, but rather automobiles commuting from the West Salem suburbs to the downtown core. This is much more a local problem than a regional problem.

As a result, their traffic modeling shows that the further away from the downtown core the prospective bridge is located, the less effective it becomes. My previous thoughts of a Lockhaven/I-5 connection would be largely ineffective in relieving congestion downtown.

Portland’s tight urban growth boundaries have fostered redevelopment near the urban core, as one formerly blighted neighborhood after another is rejuvenated. Mississippi, the Pearl, etc., are very different places than they would be without that tight boundary, and these very neighborhoods are no small part of Portland’s attractiveness to employers.

Salem’s inner neighborhoods, on the other hand, are neglected while the city instead chooses to emphasize growth around its outer fringes. Is this really a sustainable model for our city, as transportation costs soar for those in increasingly outlying areas while inner neighborhoods, with their shorter commutes, decay? What will that model look like if gas is $6 or $10 per gallon? Can we even predict what transportation costs might be in 30 years?

Choosing to live in an outlying area always has brought increased commute times and related expenses — it’s a package deal. People choose to commute downtown from West Salem, Silverton, Stayton, etc., balancing those downsides with the benefits they find in those areas.

If we could, by spending between $500 million and $900 million, shorten the commute for residents of, say, Hayesville or Battle Creek, would it be in the best interest of the city as a whole to do so? Living in West Salem is a choice, and the commute is a factor in that choice.

Eventually, congestion on the bridges will act as a natural brake to the rapid rate of development we’re seeing in West Salem, if that has not already occurred. How we choose to spend our community’s resources will determine where that development occurs.

Salem, for various reasons, is in no position to impose the sort of tight urban growth boundaries that have altered the face of Portland, but should we consider the possibility that the absence of a third bridge provides a de-facto equivalent, an equivalent that saves the community well over $500 million?

Steve Emerson has lived in Salem for more than 30 years. He can be reached at arguestoomuch@yahoo.com.

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