Why is Salem 40 years behind Eugene?
Moving from Eugene to Salem in 1980 was a shock. I left a city with three bike bridges over the Willamette River and moved to one with none. The difference in mindset between the two was striking then and still is now, when it comes to City and regional leaders’ priorities for transportation projects.
Salem prides itself on being unique, but just because Eugene does something is no reason to do exactly the opposite. Look where that’s gotten us in terms of options to get around without a car.
Why is Salem 40 years behind Eugene in transportation infrastructure like bike bridges and transit service, and how does it impact Salem residents and businesses? How does it affect employment opportunities, car-involved bike or pedestrian accidents, and the amount of disposable income circulating around the community?
Salem bus service now is probably less than it was in Eugene in the mid-70s. Stingy local funding for Cherriots is an embarrassment, and employers like the State and Salem Health aren’t doing their part via payroll taxes to support full transit service and reduce parking demands and congestion.
During the last six years, Salem and ODOT spent $6 million planning for a third bridge and the City Council decided this month to start over. Meanwhile, it took years to approve updates to the bicycle and pedestrian plan. In contrast, Eugene had a clear vision for alternative modes and built dedicated bus lanes and more bike bridges.
I have often wondered if something besides the obvious differences between a college town and a farm and government center might explain why Salem and Eugene are so different. Eugene’s head start on modern transportation infrastructure thinking and planning might be traced to a lucky coincidence in 1970. Exposed hard bedrock precluded burying a utility pipe under the Willamette River so the City planned to run it over a bridge, then let the county and University build a lane for bicycle and foot traffic over the top. This may have been the Aha! moment that changed the way Eugene viewed its needs and opportunities.
Something similar happened in Salem with the $1 option to buy the Union Street Railroad Bridge, but it was 40 years later. Now Salem has the Union Street Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge and this could be a game changer. At a City Council meeting last month, the Chamber of Commerce president noted that he had been skeptical of the Union Street Bridge conversion but now acknowledges it is an undeniable success.
Salem needs to build on that success. Let’s ask our City Council to redirect their efforts and our limited resources from the failed third bridge planning process, and look to Eugene as a model of a town our size that seems to be doing some things right to get people out of their cars and onto alternate modes of transportation.
Scott Bassett is a 32-year Salem resident and earned a Master’s degree from Willamette University. He also lived in Eugene and is a graduate and former student body president of the University of Oregon. He works for ODOT but the opinions expressed are his personal views.