Editorial: As time passes, case for Deschutes footbridge becomes stronger

December 27, 2018
Editorial: As time passes, case for Deschutes footbridge becomes stronger

Crossing has been opposed by neighbors, outgoing legislators

Led by the owners of riverside homes and abetted by a pair of local Republican legislators, those who oppose the construction of a pedestrian and bike bridge over the Deschutes River have, if nothing else, succeeded in generating controversy. What they’ve failed to do is translate that controversy into a bridge ban. And without that, the passage of time will work steadily in the bridge’s favor.

The bridge would connect neighborhoods in southwest Bend to the “Good Dog” off-leash area and the Deschutes River Trail west of the river. The crossing has been debated hotly during multiple legislative sessions and is the topic of a report discussed during the Dec. 18 meeting of the Bend Park & Recreation District board. The report, a conflict assessment prepared by a district consultant, states the obvious: Disagreement persists, and any process to address it will take some time.

That’s fine. The trail crossing enjoyed widespread public support before neighbors and their allies mounted their opposition campaign, and the reasons for that support haven’t changed. The bridge would allow people living on the densely populated east side of the river to access federal land on the west side without taking a lengthy detour that more often than not involves driving.

Avoiding vehicle trips should be good news for people on the west side of the river, too. Congestion on Reed Market Road and Century Drive are significant already and will only get worse. Meanwhile, a person who gains access to west-side trails by using a pedestrian and bike bridge rather than a car or truck won’t compete for the small number of available trailhead parking spaces.

Controversy erupted during the 2017 legislative session when Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, sought to ban the bridge using a legislative maneuver called a “gut and stuff,” which involves replacing the contents of an existing bill with very different language. Whisnant acted on behalf of a handful of people who own property along the river near the proposed bridge site.

Whisnant’s gut-and-stuff maneuver enjoyed the support of Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, in whose district the primary bridge opponents live. One of them is a longtime Buehler supporter and notable campaign contributor.

Whisnant’s attack on the bridge failed, as did an attempt to block the bridge in 2018. Whisnant and Buehler will not be in the Legislature in 2019, and their successors, both Republicans, should work with Democrats to address the state law that has complicated the bridge-building effort.

The Oregon Scenic Waterways Act prohibits the construction of bridges, including footbridges, even at the edge of Bend’s urban growth boundary, where the park district has proposed to cross. The prohibition exists in name only, as in practice it would establish only a one-year delay in bridge construction. Problem is, the Forest Service, which owns the land on which the park district would like to build the bridge, isn’t likely to cooperate as long as state law discourages the project.

The Scenic Waterways Act, at least as it applies to this small section of the river, is a problem. This becomes clearer by the day, as development on both sides of the river near the proposed bridge site continues. On the east side, the high-end River Vale subdivision is rising just a stone’s throw from the water. And on the west side, the primary opponent of the bridge filed plans this year to build a 900-square-foot accessory building in his family’s compound within the area protected by the waterway act.

There is nothing even remotely inappropriate about any of this development, but policymakers and Bend residents should have serious reservations about state regulations that allow riverside development for wealthy people, but frown on a simple footbridge that would allow everyone else to access public land.

Under even the most optimistic scenarios, a footbridge crossing the Deschutes is likely to be years away. But as Bend becomes more dense, city streets become more crowded and pricey homes crowd the riverbanks near the park district’s favored bridge site, the case for the crossing will make itself more and more forcefully.

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