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Editorial: Corvallis shouldn’t spend taxpayer funds to save the Van Buren Bridge
EDITORIAL

Editorial: Corvallis shouldn’t spend taxpayer funds to save the Van Buren Bridge

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Van Buren Bridge stock

The Van Buren Bridge in Corvallis

We won’t deny the charms of the century-old Van Buren Bridge in Corvallis. We have often admired this majestic span whilst stuck in a traffic jam.

To be fair, the one-lane bridge is even more beautiful when you’re approaching it from below, on the Willamette River, perhaps on an inner tube moving far faster than the bottleneck up above during rush hour — or more accurately, the rush two-and-a-half hours that occurs every weekday near the structure.

Mid-valley residents, including workers who drive back and forth between Albany and Corvallis, know about the congestion and have planned accordingly for decades. Avoid the one-lane bridge or accept the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

While the Van Buren Bridge is seismically unsafe and functionally obsolete, it still has that je ne sais quoi that pouts and proclaims it’s beautiful and it’s going to ruin your commute.

All kidding aside, we understand why locals want to save the historic span and turn it into a pedestrian and bike crossing on the Willamette.

However, the city of Corvallis should not commit millions of dollars to move the bridge and preserve the structure in perpetuity. Leave that to a private group who could raise the money themselves if they can drum up enough support. More on that idea in a bit.

The City Council made the right call back in October with a 5-2 vote not to take ownership of the bridge from the Oregon Department of Transportation. The decision should stand for fiscal reasons.

ODOT is currently in the final stages of a design phase for a $72 million project to replace the Van Buren Bridge, which would include improved paths for bikers, walkers and skateboarders. It should be noted that the project won’t completely solve the bottleneck but should ease traffic problems. It also should be noted that the project won’t need city funding.

To keep the 1913 bridge, ODOT estimated that it would cost anywhere from $7 million to $10 million to move the span. The agency has set an August deadline for a final answer from the city. (A competing estimate on the cost of relocating the bridge, for council review, is being completed by Preservation Works.)

Some, including City Council member Barbara Bull, have argued the ODOT estimate is designed to create sticker shock and a lack of enthusiasm for preserving the structure. We won’t disagree, but simply argue that if the price tag for moving the bridge falls on the city of Corvallis and is a tenth of ODOT’s estimate, it’s still far too much.

Plus, will there be costs associated with creating landing spots for the realignment? Then you tack on additional annual expenditures for maintenance of the span.

Millions of dollars could be better spent or saved by Corvallis right now, or for that matter, the state of Oregon.

As City Manager Mark Shepherd has pointed out, Corvallis has $2.5 million in unmet needs in its 2020-21 spending plan.

While there is ample pass-through money in the city’s budget for this fiscal year, if the novel coronavirus pandemic continues at length, state, federal and grant funding sources will eventually dry up. Having a few extra millions is probably a wise move given the uncertainties.

However, we’re not opposed to locals organizing to buy, move and maintain the bridge. If no public money is at stake and donors are determined to save it, we won’t stand in their way. And people have been able to raise massive amounts of cash for all kinds of things in Corvallis.

The timeline of the project could be the biggest obstacle to any effort to save the Van Buren Bridge. The design process is scheduled to conclude this fall, with construction of the new bridge projected to be complete in 2023 or 2024.

The timeline can’t be extended forever — although, for many longtime residents, it feels like that’s already occurred. The city of Corvallis has needed a new bridge over the Willamette River for decades. We shouldn’t let the old bridge derail or unduly delay construction of the new span.

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