Published Date: March 1, 2000
There is no single more contentious issue in Bend politics than the southern bridge crossing. The proposed bridge would span Bend's most distinguished feature, the Deschutes River Canyon, at one of its most scenic and accessible points, altering the character of our city like no other public project. Current assessment regarding the bridge has resulted in two incompatible outcomes—the need to satisfy the growing traffic congestion on the westside and the desire to preserve what is an aesthetic and economic draw of the area. Discussion about the aesthetics of the bridge, be it designed low and close the river or high, are outside the debate.
The recent development proposal by a consortium of local developers has included the funding for the Southern Bridge as a local improvement district (LID). An LID is a method for financing public improvements. While it is debatable whether a project of this magnitude can be considered a local improvement, nonetheless, funding appears to be in place and the bridge is moving ever closer to becoming reality. Of note, while the bridge is moving itself is being paid for by a LID, the roads that connect with the bridge and the right of ways for those roads would be paid for by taxpayer dollars.
The desire for an alternative to the bridge remains a passionate cause for many locals. The Friends of Bend have called in some outside support to explore alternatives to the bridge and to examine the city's evolving Transportation System Plan. 1000 Friends of Oregon, a statewide non-profit organization that serves as a citizen advocate group for land use planning, and the international engineering firm of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas, Inc. (PB), met with city staff on February 25 to review the draft transportation system plan and to gather information to ascertain whether the city is in compliance with statewide land use goals.
According to Mike Riley, Board Member for Friends of Bend, "We turned to Parsons and the 1000 Friends because of the good work they did to implement a progressive transportation vision and plan for the Portland area. What started with opposition to a controversial vision that served only cars—a proposed western by-pass highway around Portland—turned into a transportation plan that emphasized all modes of transportation and paid attention to land-use issues like mixed-use development. Given their experience, we figured we could gain some new insight from them into our draft transportation system plan as well as the southern bridge controversy. Both organizations have a track record of making progressive things happen in our communities."
The initial prognosis for the city's TSP from the two organizations indicates cause for concern. The earliest questions have been raised about the apparent lack of connection between transportation and land use planning. That is reported to be under represented. According to Charles Green, a Lead Transportation Planner for PB, the city's transportation studies examine traffic almost exclusively. Another point of concern was that the city lacked the most recent tools at their disposal for assessing whether there were other options available. "We do not believe the latest information is available and we will discuss other options. However, we have not, at this time, presented those options," states Green.
The solicitation for outside help and assessment is a strong move for the fledgling Friends of Bend organization which have, up to this point, worked cooperatively with the city and local developers. The Newport Charrette, public design workshops concerning Newport Ave, have been the most noticeable community activity for the organization. However, the bridge debate appears to be shaping up for a final contentious, albeit professional, fight. Friends of Bend is positioned to be the last organization that will be able to save the canyon from the bridge.
Ann Wheeler who serves on the board of Friends of Bend is at odds with the city's current proposal for the bridge. "Friends of Bend has been looking at the big picture. There is a traffic congestion problem, we acknowledge there is a need to move traffic across the river, but there are other more important concerns."O
ne item that came quickly in the intial examination by the PB firm was the possible adverse impact the bridge would have in rerouting traffic away from downtown. The firm has requested an analysis of the impacts the bridge would have to the downtown business core. "We are concerned that one unintended consequence of the southern crossing is diverting visitors and residents away from downtown," states Mike Riley. "Business owners and the city have worked hard to revitalize downtown in recent years and they are planning to spend more money there in the near future. The Old Mill district is just now taking off. Why divert people away from Bend's current and future commercial center, a place that is essential to the vitality of our community and where we have already invested substantial resources? Shouldn't we be sure new transportation improvements benefit existing businesses and commercial centers first, rather than future businesses?"
The bridge will have significant implications for Bend Metro Parks and Recreation who now has a large river park in place where the bridge will touch down. The type of park that will eventually be formed on that land will be determined by this bridge debate. Carrie Whitaker, Executive Director of Bend Metro Parks and Recreation reiterates the magnitude of the coming decisions regarding the bridge, "Whatever we do as a community has incredible consequences and I see the undeveloped river and open spaces as an asset. They have incredible aesthetic and economic benefits. I don't see a road having these benefits over the long haul."
In order to formulate other options for the city and Friends of Bend the engineering firm has provided a series of eight questions about the TSP. The questions seek to assess and gather information about whether the city has adequately planned for growth. Question four is a good example. It asks, "Does the model consider a) Change in the new westside high school location b) Safeway commercial area c) NW Crossing mixed use proposed development d) Community college goal to be a four-year university and e) Part-time residents (forecasts for the number of housing units that are "recreational." These are tough questions for a rapidly developing city, particularly the booming westside.
Interest in Bend for 1000 Friends of Oregon is two fold. Friends of Bend has applied to be an affiliate organization. Official status within the organization could come as early as March, which would enable the organization to access legal help and the resources of the 5,000-member organization. More importantly, however, is 1000 Friends' goal to evaluate 5 to 10 transportation system plans statewide to see if they conform to Oregon's Statewide Planning Goals. The scope of the bridge project demands statewide attention. Of particular interest to the Bend area is whether goal twelve, transportation, is being met. The goal aims to provide a safe, convenient and economic transportation system. It asks for communities to address the needs of the transportation disadvantaged. This is where 1000 Friends will direct most of their energies.
Lynn Peterson, Transportation Advocate for 1000 Friends of Oregon, states, "The bridge is a local jurisdiction issue that is implementing the state transportation system plan and must comply with Oregon land use planning goals. As transportation investment, be it a bridge, street or bus is implementing a land use plan."1
000 Friends of Oregon asks that local governments question their plan on six points to assess whether they are moving in compliance with goal twelve: Is investment occurring within the existing community? Does the plan contain high density mixed use neighborhoods? Is it pedestrian friendly? Are the streets multi-modal (multi-use)? Are the streets well constructed? Are investments being made in multiple modes of transportation? Fix it first—is maintenance and preservation occurring on existing streets?
Deborah McMahon, Director of Development Services for the city of Bend, believes the input from the outside community will ultimately be helpful. "I think the input is fine. If Friends of Bend has the resources that is great. Everything the city has done is on the table and open for examination." It might seem that more consultants and more probing into the TSP would be taxing for city staff but the reassessment of the city's work, is according to McMahon, well-timed. "It is a lot of work for us, but it is timely because the issues are coming before the Bend Transporation Advisory Committee as well."
Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas, Inc. will formulate a technical memo within the next couple weeks. It will then be the responsibility of Friends of Bend to use that information to affect the Transportation System Plan process. "The community needs to come together and protect the river. In coming together, I think people need to ask what is the benefit of the bridge for tax bearers," states Wheeler.
The city's transportation system plan and the consortium's proposal, which includes the southern bridge, are moving forward simultaneously. The City Council is scheduled to adopt the TSP on June 21. The two items will be the defining issues of the November election. And the southern bridge debate, with the added information from PB and 1000 Friends of Oregon, should provide the first contentious bloom of spring.