How Safe is Van Buren Bridge?

On Jan. 27, around 5:43 a.m., a non-injury crash occurred on the Van Buren Bridge, marking the 11th accident on the structure in the past two years and contributing further to the ongoing argument over what to do with the historic bridge.   

Lt. Ryan Eaton, public information officer for the Corvallis Police Department, said in this particular crash, the vehicle was heading eastbound on Van Buren Ave. and approaching the Van Buren Bridge where the confluence of the three lanes is reduced to one lane to cross the Willamette River.   

Witnesses reported the driver was speeding in an attempt to get ahead of other cars — when they tried to merge, they clipped the guardrail on the bridge, inducing a pinball effect where it bounced off of the railing two or three times before coming to a stop. After speaking with the driver and witnesses, police cited the driver for an unlawful and unsignaled lane change.   

Though no one was injured in the crash, the accident spurs age-old arguments about the Van Buren Bridge. The general consensus is that the structure needs to be replaced, but conflict has risen due to opposing opinions on what to do or not to do to preserve the historic bridge.   

The History of the Bridge  

The Van Buren Bridge is one of the only of its kind west of the Mississippi River and the only of its kind in the state. Eaton said that though the bridge used to serve the smaller size population when it was built, it struggles to support the current Corvallis population. Eaton described it as having become a “bottleneck” to traffic.   

The rich history behind this century old bridge ties it to the Corvallis community in ways which make it difficult for some citizens to part with the landmark. Built in 1913, the bridge was funded by a bond measure along with other private funding. The bond, passed Nov. 22, 1912, was the first measure the women of Corvallis were able to vote on – having  gained suffrage earlier that same month.  

In 1938, the Oregon Department of Transportation took possession of the bridge when the Albany-Corvallis Road became OR 34. Now, with a $72.6 million budget, ODOT plans to begin construction of a new bridge across the Willamette River on eastbound OR 34 in 2022. The plan is currently in the design phase.   

Along with causing traffic issues and being too narrow and low weight bearing, one of ODOTs senior transportation managers, Anna Henson, cited the current Van Buren Bridge structure as “functionally obsolete,” while the ODOT Van Buren Bridge Project website notes the bridge as “seismically vulnerable.”   

The Safety Issues  

These safety concerns are echoed by several community members, such as George Shaw – a retired engineer and avid bicyclist who has resided in Corvallis for the last 52 years. During a Corvallis council meeting on Oct. 5, 2020, Shaw voiced his opinion about the structural stability of the bridge, stating, “If you kayak underneath it, all you see is a couple railroad ties with a million tons of asphalt on top of it. It’s not a nice bridge.”   

The initial goal of relocating and restoring the bridge was to provide a pedestrian and bicycle bridge, but Shaw objected to the idea of spending $6 million on the project. “Not all bicycle riders think that saving the old bridge is the best thing,” Shaw said in his closing remarks.   

Though Shaw is not alone in his vexations, this opinion is certainly not the only one within the Corvallis community. Other citizens, such as Patricia Benner, have expressed potential safety concerns about the new bridge. Though ODOT’s plans include pedestrian and bicyclist access, Benner is worried about the lack of protection for those not operating motor vehicles on the planned replacement bridge.   

In a written testimony submitted to the City Council and Mayor Biff Traber, Benner explained that most drivers already exceed the speed limit on the current bridge. By adding two lanes and removing girders, Benner believes drivers will increase their speed, causing more danger for those not behind the wheel.   

Benner stated that “the history of transportation design for pedestrians and bicyclists is discriminatory.” By following through with the plan of repurposing the Van Buren Bridge, Benner believes Corvallis has an opportunity to implement ODOT’s new guidance document which effectively provides separate spaces for pedestrians and vehicular traffic.   

Where the State Stands on the Issue  

Some city councilors gained strong opinions on the Van Buren Bridge after hearing from ODOT.  

In 2017, ODOT gave a presentation to the Corvallis City Council. The presentation laid out the $72 million plan and had details on how ODOT was planning on preserving the old Van Buren Bridge. However, by 2019, ODOT had rescinded the latter detail and gave the council a big task; within six months the city had to come up with a plan to buy the bridge from ODOT and move it — a $6 million undertaking. 

After that, Councilor Jan Napack said she and her colleagues put their “blinders on” and went to work to find a solution to moving the bridge. Having ODOT come in and say “this is what we’re going to do” deeply troubled the councilwoman. Napack’s role as a public servant hinges on her faith in the public process of government, and ODOT’s move violated that for her. Instead of being proactive, the council had to be reactive and was put at a disadvantage. 

Many Plans Have Been Made  

Given the pandemic, ODOT did give the city an extension (then another) on their deadline to purchase the bridge. Regardless, the city was unable to find the funds needed to buy the bridge from ODOT.   

In a town hall meeting on Oct. 5, 2020, the City Council reached a 5-4 split vote to end the talks of buying the bridge from ODOT and to provide no additional staff time to the matter. In an amendment pushed by Councilor Napack, the city agreed to add the prose “but allow communication with ODOT as necessary.”  

The amendment was an unsurprising addition. Councilor Jan Napack has been in Corvallis for decades, and she has a deep understanding of the individual attempts to move the Van Buren Bridge, going all the way back to the ‘80s when she was working at Hewlett-Packard.  

In the more recent history, she recalled a 2005 plan ODOT proposed to move and preserve the Van Buren Bridge, but the 2008 recession put that plan on the skids. The bridge was however refurbished in 2009. On that, Councilor Napack said that the current bridge is not dangerous “in and of itself” – the cars and pedestrians going on the one-way bridge are not in any danger in their day-to-day. That being said, the bridge is over 100 years old and is seismically unsafe with its wooden superstructure.   

Eaton said that he also doesn’t believe the structure itself to be dangerous, but that it still poses a problem to drivers.   

“I wouldn’t necessarily categorize the bridge itself as dangerous by its structure,” he said, “I would say that people’s reaction to it could be dangerous at times. I think it drives an exponential increase in the danger of their behavior.”  

With a rush hour traffic increase due to a surge in population, frustrations among drivers have escalated, causing more crashes to occur. The most common types of accidents, according to Eaton, are rear-end collisions.   

“You’re looking at an increase in population, more people commuting back and forth, and so you have a very short distance on the approach to the bridge for traffic to merge into the one center lane that is allowed to travel eastbound,” he said.   

Preservation Works and other bridge allies are in opposition to Oregon Department of Transportation’s current plan to replace the bridge. The organization did not respond for comment; however, they claim on their website, “The proposed new bridge is not intended to relieve downtown congestion.”  

Preservation Works also has issues with the replacement bridge budget, steep grade, approach grades, bicycle and pedestrian access, and downtown truck traffic increase.   

For the Moment, We Have the Van Buren  

Eaton recommended to drivers that they practice defensive and patient driving generally, but definitely while crossing the Van Buren Bridge. This includes not using a cell phone while driving, giving other cars space, and being attentive while behind the wheel.   

“If everybody practices those safe driving tips, we can reduce the likelihood of crashes even in situations like the Van Buren Bridge, where the engineering of that area is outdated,” he said.   

By Sarah Gram, Trevor Horn, and Cara Nixon 

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