A Bridge Not Far Enough

Published Friday, Sept. 19, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Springtime, 2007. Hope was in the air. Oregon Department of Transportation announced a new way of doing business in, with and for Lane County. Our I-5 bridge spanning the Willamette River would be replaced with a thing of beauty, a “signature bridge.” But more than that, ODOT promised a new way of doing business. The agency would ask us what we want in a bridge. Local government officials would comprise a Project Delivery Team. A Community Advisory Group would gather other voices. Each would be guided with expert facilitation. Public meetings. Posters. On-line surveys. A special Web site. Full disclosure. Transparency. No surprises. A new day was dawning. The future was bright.

ODOT would build the bridge, but we would build the vision for it together. As they say, “He who chops his own wood is warmed twice.” We would love our new bridge. Postcard sales would surge.

Volunteers stepped up. We would work within tight constraints to bring a beautiful bridge to Lane County, on time and on budget. We learned about the intricacies of bridge-building, whittling our affordable design options to four. In a town with too many English majors, multiple choice questions have never been our favorite. We’d rather wax eloquent, question authority, and think outside the proverbial box. But not this time. “None of the above” was not allowed. So we chose.

1,388 of us took the on-line survey. For once, there was agreement. One design was the clear favorite, embraced by over 55 percent of the respondents. The second most popular option received fewer than half as many votes. The Communty Advisory Group and Project Development Team concurred with the people’s choice.

We chose a through-arch bridge design, with a sweeping curve that starts at the water, passes through the deck of the bridge, continues skyward, and then swoops down to the water. It would be like driving between two smaller versions of the St. Louis Arch. The arches would make a statement to motorists crossing the Willamette River, but also to boaters beneath and commuters on Franklin Boulevard. Not bad. Maybe this new emphasis on collaboration was working.

Then on Monday, ODOT made its public announcement. Quoting directly, their press release began:

“Following more than 18 months of study, design and community outreach, ODOT has selected a deck arch bridge type for the new Interstate 5 span over the Willamette River. This decision comes after giving careful consideration to input from the Willamette River Bridge Community Advisory Group and the recommendation of the WRB Project Delivery Team – made up of officials from Eugene, Springfield, Lane County, the Federal Highway Administration and ODOT. Also weighing into the selection of a deck arch were the results of a May 2008 Web survey in which more than 1,300 respondents ranked their bridge type preferences.”

Huh?

To review: survey respondents preferred the through-arch design by more than 2-to-1 over the deck arch design. The Community Advisory Group voted in favor of the through-arch design. So did the Project Development Team.

ODOT gave “careful consideration” to public input. “Careful” in this case means “crafty,” “contrived,” and “Orwellian.” ODOT tells us the deck-arch received more votes for first or second choice than any of the others. It also had the fewest last place votes.

Corvallis has more Math majors, but come on — we can count! Adding first and second choices adds insult to injury. ODOT is giving us the bridge we hate the least.

We were promised a “signature bridge.” We were promised uncharacteristic transparency. In the end — if this is the end — we got neither.

I’m left with questions.

To Lane County residents: “Where’s the outrage?”

And to ODOT, who I believe honestly tried and mostly succeeded in building a collaborative design process: “Why stop now?”

Sure, costs have spiraled. There’s a $14 million gap. But isn’t that just one more problem to be solved? Why squander the good will, expertise and local passion this new design process has built? We can help. Let us.

Reconvene the CAG and the PDT, and complete the design decision again, this time collaboratively. After all, there’s still a bridge to be built.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) will speak to City Club today at noon, recounting his trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. The meeting at the Downtown Athletic Club is open to the public. Kahle blogs right here.