As our city debates building a new bridge to carry autos across the Willamette at a price tag of up to $700 million, we thought we’d ask Allan Pollock, General Manager of Salem-Keizer Transit, how that same $700 million investment would transform the work his agency does.
“If the transit district had access to $700 million you would see a community that allows for full mobility for everyone,” he said.
“Picture a community with reduced congestion because more people are using the bus, because it is frequent enough they don’t have to think about the schedule. Picture a community that is more environmentally sound because more people are using the bus so there are fewer cars on the road emitting pollution. Picture a community that anyone can compete for a job or continue their education because transportation is no longer a barrier. That is what Salem might be like.”
Instead, according to Curtis Fisher, alternative transportation advocate, Salem has “auto-dependent environments like Commercial Street, Mission Street, Lancaster Drive, River Road, Wallace Road… monstrous, unforgiving arterials serving low-quality strip commercial development surrounded by vast asphalt deserts of unused parking spaces. Every resident of Salem is dependent on these places for the basics like groceries.
They aren’t just aesthetically offensive; they are a growing health and safety threat that is contributing to an epidemic of obesity, inactivity, depression, loss of productivity, and increasing in traffic fatality rates.”
With domestic oil reserves predicted to give out in 50 – 70 years and gas prices expected to skyrocket by the middle of the century, Salem can expect – sooner or later – to rely less on the internal combustion engine.
The decades will bring this change no matter our feelings about it, and to resist it is as futile as clinging to a rotary landline in 2012.
Let’s look into some of the “alternate” transportation” options that will become only more prominent in the daily life of Salem as the years pass.
Walking and Biking
Walking is the first way human beings got around, and the benefits to our bodies and to the planet are indisputable. Bicycles, around for 200 years, provide numerous gains as well; no ongoing carbon footprint, increase mobility for those who don’t qualify to drive and overwhelming health advantages to those who bike to work. Cities who engineer walking and biking into their plans show good economic sense, too, says Gary Obery, a local pedestrian and bicycle traffic engineer.
“The Portland Metro area has spent over $4 billion on roadway improvements for cars and only $153 million on bike/pedestrian improvements, yet they have attracted 23% of all new trips to bikes,” Obery maintains. ”Those types of improvements are so much more cost effective ($ per new trip) than trying to add capacity to the bottlenecks for cars/trucks. Salem can’t afford to not accommodate future population growth through increases in walking and biking.”
Portland’s award-winning traffic engineer, Rob Burchfield, agrees. “Bicycling infrastructure is relatively easy to implement and low-cost compared to other modes. It is by far the most cost-effective way to provide for personal mobility in an urban transportation system.”
Cities that already emphasize walking/biking have innovated ways of integrating these forms with traditional traffic. One is a Copenhagen ‘bicycle track,’ the design of which protects cyclists from moving vehicles by parked ones. Obery, who took the picture in Copenhagen, says Copenhagen “typically [has] a cycle track on each side of major arterials like these.”
That could be Salem’s Liberty Street. Or Commercial Street. Or Court Street.
Fisher tells us, “pedestrian-friendly developments have been shown to generate 8 times the revenue for the city as auto-dependent development.” And he cautions that any reimagined transit future must consider all forms simultaneously. Especially, he says, the most vulnerable: walkers and bikers.
“Every transit rider,” he says, “starts and ends their trip as a pedestrian, and we don’t treat pedestrians very well in Salem.” Fisher, an alternative transportation advocate, points to a bus stop on Commercial Street.
“This rider is crossing five lanes of traffic that carry over 40K average daily trips without a crosswalk just to get to the bus stop. It’s really not surprising that people don’t use transit in Salem when we treat them like this.”
Cherriots and City of Salem commissioned a feasibility study of transportation options for Salem in 2004. People who are excited by the issue, such as Pollock and the League of Women Voters, found surprising advantages to introducing streetcars to our metro area.
Some benefits, according the final 2005 report (titled “Central Salem Streetcar Feasibility Study” says that streetcars (an electric-powered vehicle operated on tracks) follow:
• Streetcars are proven to attract 15-50% more riders than buses. They build all-day usage, rather than rush-hour only.
• Streetcars are trusted because passengers can see where the tracks lead on any route. Because the routes are fixed, it adds long-term predictable value to businesses along the line.
• Streetcars are an effective means of connecting with other high-capacity transit systems, such as inter-city buses and trains, allowing seamless regional transportation, reducing reliance on automobiles and reducing traffic congestion.
• Streetcars attract private funding and urban renewal funding. They have the potential to promote infill and high-density residential development.
• Streetcars are electric, non-polluting and safe.
The League of Women Voters of Marion-Polk Counties studied the document and recommended several streetcar routes in a study which is still in progress:
1) Lancaster Drive and Chemeketa Community College, connecting shopping malls, medical clinics and Salem-Keizer School District offices, 2) in Keizer, along Broadway and River Road North where many businesses, apartments and professional offices are located, 3) a South Salem line connecting Commercial and Liberty, the Civic Center, City Offices and the library, 4) West Salem, using the Railroad Bridge already in place, running past the transit center to the Capitol Mall.
Sandra Gangle, a League member who has studied the issue, says, “My personal opinion is that a streetcar system is feasible in Salem. It would be costly, but federal funds may be available to help with implementation of such a project, assuming the community supports the concept. The project could begin with a short (one or two-mile segment) and then additional segments could be added later. Other cities have successfully done this.”
For agencies such as Pollock’s, capital costs and operating costs are of paramount consideration. He tells us that the funding for each is very different. “Typically capital costs are funded with federal and/or state contributions and operating costs come from the local funding source. Under the current structure Salem-Keizer Transit would either have to secure a new local sustainable operating source or reduce current fixed route service to pay for the new streetcar or trolley service.”
Funding like that takes a massive commitment from the community. For example, at a Public Hearing on August 13 the City of Salem voted to amend the Salem Transportation System Plan to include substantial considerations for bicycles and pedestrians with a Bike and Walk Plan.
The City said, “The Bike and Walk Salem Plan identifies and prioritizes needed improvements to the bicycle and pedestrian systems in Salem over the next 20 years with a focus on Safe Routes to Schools.”
But the first Transportation Systems plan was adopted in 1998 and nearly everyone agrees that nearly none of its recommendations have been acted on. While advocates like Fisher believe the recent vote “sets a blueprint for a city composed of healthy, active neighborhood activity centers that make pleasant and attractive destinations to bike and walk,” his concern is the execution.
“We have had bold plans on the books for many years. The existing [1998,} elements in the transportation system plan set the goals to triple the bike mode share by 2015 and double the walk mode share. Now in 2012, we have made no progress toward these goals at all.”
“If the city would implement the planning policies and objectives that they have had on the books for decades our transit system in Salem would be in much better shape,” he says.
But with his agency hit by lack of funding, Pollock doesn’t see a raise in investment in transportation any time soon. “Salem-Keizer Transit has worked hard over the last several years to provide a stable level of service within its available resources. This fiscal year is the fourth straight year that the District has maintained service levels since its service reduction in 2009. I am very proud of what we have accomplished. It hasn’t been easy and it certainly is not the level of service we feel the community needs, but it is what we can afford.”
The problem, summed up by two statements. First, Fisher’s: “Salem needs to broaden its understanding of transportation issues in order to achieve our goal to be a cleaner, greener, safer, and more economically prosperous city.”
And then Pollock’s. “At this point I do not see any significant growth in public transportation service without a new sustainable revenue source…. If the community would like to see their transit service expanded we are ready to have a conversation on how we can do that.”