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Feb-29-2008 11:47printcomments

Salem's Railroad Bridge Will Become Pedestrian and Bike Friendly

The project has a few problems, but Salem officials say it will be a positive change.

Salem's railroad bridge
Salem's railroad bridge
Photo by Kevin Montgomery

(SALEM, Ore.) - The city of Salem plans a celebration to commemorate the beginning of the Union Street Railroad Bridge renovation. It is set for Thursday, March 6th at 4:00 PM. The bridge will be converted from a railroad bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle connection between Riverfront and Wallace Marine Parks.

This project will convert the historic Union Street Railroad Bridge and its associated timber trestle, built across the Willamette River in 1912-13, into a facility for pedestrians, bicyclists, and other non-motorized users.

But while the city plans celebrations, some people in the Salem community say large problems connected to the project are unaddressed, and the consequences could be large, even disastrous.

Divers who swam around the footings of the bridge during the Salem flood in the mid-90's discovered problems with the bridge footings on the river bottom. One local business owner who talked to the divers told Salem-News that the problems were related to age.

In fairness to the city's plans, pedestrians and bikes weigh little, and the bridge does go on existing year after year.

Perhaps certain potential problems that are cited in this article will never arise, and they should not necessarily be a call for alarm either. But it seems that the drawings of the bridge initially presented to city council will look quite different from the final project. Either way, the bridge is there and it is not utilized, perhaps this is a good way to utilize an existing eyesore and transform it into something eco-friendly and useful for the public. That certainly is one point the proponents are making.

Counter balances

The railroad bridge over the Willamette River in Salem has a pair of counter balancing concrete blocks that were put in place to allow it to raise and lower for river boat traffic. The system is no longer usable, as no trains have used this bridge for at least 40 years. In the time since then, the bridge has been a navigational hazard for vessels in the river, as the raising and lowering ability ceased.

By some estimates, the cables holding the 250-ton counter balance blocks are in dire need of replacement. One source told that they should have been replaced 40 years ago when the railroad abandoned use of the bridge.

The process of removing the counter balance blocks would require a massive crane and lifting project, and if only one were to let go, the bridge would likely destroy itself from the misplaced weight.

One local construction worker who was consulted on the project said the odds that the bridge would hold a crane suitable for removing the massive weights were slim at best. That means a barge would be required.

Sadly, with the federal government's squeezing of funds for Oregon in recent years, the Willamette River locks at Oregon City are now closed. The locks were the only possible way to bring a large barge into the Salem area from Portland.

In other words, the notion of bringing down the counter weights which probably are not safe, is a large, if not next to impossible idea at this time. Federal laws have much to say about how removals of this nature are completed.

The bridge is also covered in lead paint, which would pose many hazards if it were to collapse, one expert said. If the bridge fell into the river, the city of Salem and its taxpayers would foot what would surely be an enormous bill for the environmental hazard that the lead based paint would create by making contact with the river waters, let alone the other clean up and damage control that would be required.

In a worst case scenario, this could be reminiscent of the situation in Minneapolis last year, when an eight-lane, 1,907 feet steel truss arch bridge that carried Interstate 35W across the Mississippi River collapsed at 6:05 PM on Wednesday, August 1st 2007.

During the evening rush hour, the main spans of the bridge collapsed, falling into the river and its banks. Thirteen people died and approximately one hundred more were injured.

A few people walking across the Salem railroad bridge would probably have to be doing it during a substantial earthquake to suffer a similar fate, but it seems there still could be a lesson to learn in that tragic, recent Midwest story that Salem's planners may not be paying close attention to.

An earthquake in particular, could begin a swaying motion that the counter weights, and the bridge itself, might be challenged to endure.

But the city of Salem says the completion of this change should provide a critical half-mile link in the bicycle and pedestrian circulation systems for the community, the region, and the state. Anyone who bicycles in the Salem area sorely knows that the city distinctly lacks a bike friendly aspect in many if not most areas, unlike the city of Eugene, Oregon, where bike and walking trails flourish.

City proponents say two large urban parks, 114-acre Wallace Marine and 23-acre Riverfront Park, bookend this bridge and the conversion will connect their trail systems into a single, safe and pleasant trail network.

Fortunately, one of the great areas Salem has for walking is Riverfront Park, which was also the development of a major renovation project a few years ago. Obviously, these can be extremely positive and viable gains for Salem if renovation projects are undertaken correctly. The bridge's proximity to the park would likely add to its level of attractiveness and usefulness for residents.

Funding for the bridge conversion is coming from a number of areas. These are the Oregon Department of Transportation Enhancement Grant Program, Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Local Government Grant, the City of Salem Emergency Response Fund, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Trails Grant Program, the Cycle Oregon Fund, the Riverfront Downtown and West Salem Urban Renewal Areas.

Organizers of the project say the Union Street Railroad Bridge renovation will improve bicycle and pedestrian safety and accessibility, and encourage use of alternative transportation modes. They say it will promote healthy forms of exercise like running, cycling, skating, and wheelchairing for both local and out-of-town users.

Union Pacific Rail Road sold the bridge and related right of way to Wallace Road to the City for $1, and is establishing a $550,000 maintenance fund.

Opponents of the project, joke that railroad officials celebrated Salem's "$1 purchase" of the bridge which relieved the railroad system from further liability. But the fact that the railroad is providing over half a million for maintenance is also a sign that this could be a good project that while not idea, could still be a useful addition for a city that needs more recreational activity, and fewer cars on the road.

Winning bid

The successful bidder for the construction project is Carter & Company, Inc., a Salem contractor. Work will begin immediately and it is anticipated that the bridge will open within a year.

Comments Leave a comment on this story.

All comments and messages are approved by people and self promotional links or unacceptable comments are denied.

Tim King March 3, 2008 3:17 pm (Pacific time)

AC: No apologies necessary, I appreciate it when people help straighten it out. I do know what you mean about comments, some of the stories that take off nationally get very colorful. In fact, I have a huge list of names that I can use on myself in a self-depreciation tirade should I ever need them. (LOL!) Seriously, there is much to be said about renovating existing structures. I hope the right answers find their way to acceptance on this one, whatever they may be.

AC March 3, 2008 3:06 pm (Pacific time)

Tim: My apologies for being a bit harsh at first, I worked in journalism for a number of years and have a rather cynical view of many of my former contemporaries. As for the fact related issue, it's probably no surprise that even reputable sources can get things amazingly wrong at times. And ironically, normally I *hate* comments on news stories! (And not just when I'm the author of the story!)

Henry Ruark March 3, 2008 1:20 pm (Pacific time)

To all, with note to NMom: Please note that $550,000 maintenance fund from the previous owner. That should cut down quite a bit on the "waste" evaluation, don't you agree ??

Henry Ruark March 3, 2008 12:16 pm (Pacific time)

NMom: Is it remotely possible others than those you name might also use this bridge, if and when it is properly set up for safe, convenient travel ? "Waste" is evaluative term --some even apply it to the absolutely devastating dollars spent on our world-dominating military establishment, seeing the possibility, at least, at some is "wasted". From own limited experience as Tech-writer (War II) I KNOW there was much-wasted then as I committed-same "under orders" involving recruiting and press relations in Maine, visiting high schools to sign up kids for Air Force duty.

Henry Ruark March 3, 2008 10:28 am (Pacific time)

To all: Keyphrase from Tim's Comment: "Either way, there have been substantial closed door dealings necessary to bring it even to where it is. I just think that too much has been stated about the viability of this project by its proponents without addressing several areas of possible concern." That is clear demonstration of solid community service, to which this open, honest -and surely observably democratic--channel is clearly contributing. "Closed door" characterizes far too much of what went on in Salem all those 30 years I lived there, except when Swaim was Mayor. Now at least-and at last !- there is this way to work thru mutual and cooperative inputs on real problems and issues, denied in depth by print-side proclivities always found in monopoly format. (If any real question about that-last, ID to Editor for easy documentation by PDFs for many years experience there.)

Navalmom March 3, 2008 7:20 am (Pacific time)

I still think it is a waste of money too. It will now make it easier for the homeless, drug dealers, police escapees, etc. to get from W. Salem to Salem. Again, I will never set foot on the bridge. Especially since it is deteriorating at the footings. Just another big pork project.

Tim King March 2, 2008 2:51 pm (Pacific time)

I was provided information for this story by very reputable sources. The fact that they asked not to be named is understandable in a political and business sensitive climate. If I erred in the statement about the bridge not being used for 40 years then I am more than willing to stand corrected. I think the fact is that "abandoned" was in retrospect, not a good word to use. I think it is also true that the later years saw very little use. I think we will have to keep looking at the facts behind the story and talking to more people. This type of input from AC is extremely valuable and substantiates the usefulness of the comment section. I tried to communicate in this article that the idea to complete this project could be extremely viable. Either way, there have been substantial closed door dealings necessary to bring it even to where it is. I just think that too much has been stated about the viability of this project by its proponents without addressing several areas of possible concern.

AC March 2, 2008 2:27 pm (Pacific time)

The bridge has NOT been abandoned for 40 years. It was operated over well into the 1980s. Given that glaring misstatement, I am suspect of the other claims in this article. As far as bridge safety and quality, the odds of it falling down under the weight of pedestrians and bikes, much less the weight of an occasional auto-based maintenance vehicle are slim to none. The bridge was built to handle tonnage measured by the thousands. You could load the bridge with a couple thousand pedestrians and *still* be nowhere *near* its weight rating, even when stress and age are taken into account. It should be remembered that the Salem Streetcar proposal considered using this bridge. If it's strong enough to support one or two 55 ton streetcars, its likely still in serviceable shape. (This is of course assuming that that aborted proposal actually got to a Phase I (the so-called "fatal flaw stage") report.) The counter weights may be the only valid concern. I have my doubts even about that, but I can understand why a risk manager might want to have them removed. The only other valid concern would be the lead paint issue. It would be expensive to remove, though not impossible by any stretch.

T March 1, 2008 12:08 pm (Pacific time)

Waste of money! Would this be a good place to build a REAL bridge? If so, tear this one down and stop messing around!

James February 29, 2008 12:13 pm (Pacific time)

I believe it could be done. Anything is possible given enough time, willpower, and money. Plus i'm a big supporter of restoring/finding new life for historic landmarks, instead of tearing them down. As well as being an antique collector, and just enjoying old things.

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