Building a Bridge on Bad Data? 1000 Friends Urges Reconsideration of Salem River Crossing

In Salem, leaders are soon to make a choice about whether to build the Salem River Crossing across the Willamette River, a massive project that could cost more than $800 million. Supporters say the bridge is needed to handle projected traffic and population growth in Polk and Marion counties. But new data show that these assumptions may be incorrect.

Our Willamette Valley Advocate, Mia Nelson, recently told the Salem Weekly and Salem City Council why.

Download Mia's letter to the Salem City Council, that explains why updated draft state population forecasts show that the new bridge supporters may be standing on shaky ground. 

As shown in the map of alternatives at right, the Salem River Crossing project could include considerable widening and reconstruction of other arterials and highways (including Highway 22) in downtown, north Salem, and West Salem. Leaders in Salem, Keizer, and Marion and Polk Counties are currently working to choose a locally preferred alternative.

Yet as Mia Nelson told Salem Weekly's Helen Caswell recently, they may be working with outdated information as they make this crucial decision. Caswell wrote in the paper earlier this month:

On January 2, the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis (OEA) issued a new draft document, a 2012 long-range forecast [currently subject to public review and comment], to all Oregon county officials. 

The draft document predicts significantly less growth for our area than previously expected.  Recent analysis also suggests that traffic is decreasing in ways City Council’s figures do not reflect.

“The question of whether or not there is a need for this new bridge has to be answered by the facts that exist today,” says Eugene’s Mia Nelson, a real estate developer and construction contractor for 17-years who now represents 1000 Friends of Oregon, a non-profit organization focused on livability.

On January 4, Nelson wrote Salem’s Mayor Anna Peterson and the Salem City Council to advise them that population and traffic forecasts used by the group that has guided “Third Bridge” exploration since 2006 were based on older data that assumed higher growth in Polk County than the new OEA draft forecast.

“Is it really true,” Nelson wrote the City Council, “that bridge traffic will double in the next 18 years? If not, then the integrity of the decision-making process has been compromised, because that assumption was key to the determination that a third bridge was necessary.”

Population statistics used by the City Council thus far have relied on 2000 census and 2004 OEA projections, Nelson says.  The calculations predicted, for example, that afternoon peak period traffic across the Willamette between Salem and West Salem would double by 2031.

In fact, however, current bridge traffic levels are already 25% lower than those forecast for 2015.

Faulty assumptions, Nelson wrote in her letter to the Council, raise the risk of a bad decision. “Wrong inputs yield wrong outputs.”

When she spoke to Salem Weekly, Nelson said, “Population growth predicted by the 2004 figures [currently used by the City Council] is almost 50% higher than the new OEA draft.  That’s not a solid basis for a project this large.”

Read the rest of the article here.

1000 Friends fully supports modernizing Salem's infrastructure. But before committing city and state taxpayers to such an expensive project, leaders need accurate, current information about whether such a project is actually needed. It isn't clear that the data used so far in this project is accurate.

Furthermore, leaders must consider whether a huge new bridge undermines other community goals, like creating a vibrant downtown, promoting transportation options and safety, and saving taxpayers money. We will continue working with local leaders and residents to find transportation solutions that help Salem, rather than pin its future on outdated data.

Click here to learn more about the Salem River Crossing project, read its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and learn about how you can get involved.