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There's still a chance for a Stillwater Bridge that doesn't destroy the river's scenic value

"Alternative E" for the Stillwater bridge is larger in scale and has greater environmental impact than the 3-architects proposal.
Courtesy of MnDOT
"Alternative E" for the Stillwater bridge is larger in scale and has greater environmental impact than the 3-architects proposal.

Everyone loves a mystery, and the biggest mystery in Minnesota politics started three weeks ago when Gov. Mark Dayton abruptly changed his mind and went along with Rep. Michele Bachmann's crackpot idea to violate the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by building a big, intrusive, freeway-style bridge over the St. Croix River near Stillwater.

Since then, Dayton has stuck to his story: Unless Congress jumps in to override the federal act, no bridge of any type can be built and, in Dayton’s words, “It’s back to square one and it’ll be another decade without substantial change.” He added, “I want a resolution to this. We need a new bridge.” Those comments, to the surprise of his staff and MnDOT officials, came on March 18.

He repeated that same line last week when he met with representatives of environmental groups who favor a new lower-profile bridge that would fit the character of the scenic and historic river valley. Dayton's impression, they said, is that his choice is between a big freeway-style bridge or no bridge at all.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but I don't think that's the only choice. I've read and reread the National Park Service's official rejection of the freeway-style bridge and nowhere can I find language that says it would object to any bridge. In fact, the wording seems almost to invite engineers to propose a more compatible, lower-profile design.

With Wisconsin's politics in turmoil, it's doubtful that any new bridge could be opened within the next five years. If that's so, why rush into a big-bridge solution that will damage the scenic value of the river? Why not take a little time to rethink the design and put up a less-intrusive bridge that satisfies the Park Service and blends into the valley's natural beauty and historic character? After all, MnDOT has demonstrated its talent (remember I-35W?) to respond quickly to design and construction challenges.

Sketching a new bridge
What might this new bridge look like?

As I wrote here on March 4, a new bridge should relieve Stillwater's summertime traffic problems without inducing an excessive amount of sprawl development on the Wisconsin side of the river. Obviously, its design should not intrude on the historic and natural quality of the valley.

That means a so-called "low, slow" solution (PDF) — a bridge that wouldn't span the river from bluff top to bluff top but drop down to a level more in scale with the existing Lift Bridge. Speeds (and noise) should be kept to a minimum. Engineers might consider a three-lane design that would allow east-west flexibility depending on traffic flow. The bridge should be dynamically tolled as a way to fairly shift costs to users and to help manage traffic buildup in the area.

The park service, in rejecting the freeway-style bridge, seemed almost to invite such a design while rejecting outright the freeway-style bridge that MnDOT proposed.

NPS rejects 'massive' bridge
"The [freeway-style] bridge would introduce a new form that in size, shape and scale would dominate the landscape and would be in direct contrast to all other structures within the viewshed," the report said on page 49. "The massive scale of this bridge would make it visible for many miles up and down river. The addition of movement with passenger vehicles and large trucks across the top of the bridge would also draw the viewer's attention towards this new form."

It also stated on page 44: "Any new bridge or alteration of an existing bridge must be of a scale and character that [is consistent with the values of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers designation]."

Clearly, the report rejected to a 200-foot-tall freeway-style structure spanning the bluff tops but didn't necessarily object to any bridge on the site. Likewise, letters from Park Service officials that accompanied the report didn't preclude a lower-profile bridge, even if Congress voted to allow a new river-crossing to proceed.

As mysterious as Dayton’s change of mind, has been a similar turn by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Her bill wouldn’t remove the Stillwater river segment from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act but would allow a new freeway-style bridge. The bridge wouldn’t be an eyesore because a large power plant already exists adjacent to the site, she told Minnesota Public Radio. That’s hardly a justification in my view. By that logic, it would be OK to begin lining the river with one ugly structure after another. In any case, it runs against federal policy of reducing – over time – the visually objectionable structures along the river.

The hope is that Sen. Al Franken, who hasn't made up his mind on the issue, will inject a dose of reason into the discussion. The choice isn't between a freeway bridge or no bridge. The choice is about the scope and design of a new bridge.

Controlling sprawl
It’s also whether it makes sense to spend $700 million on a bridge that would benefit primarily a few thousand Wisconsin commuters and invite the kind of inefficient, far-flung development that the metro region should be trying to avoid. It’s especially odd that Dayton would endorse a project of the type that has hastened disinvestment in core metro areas when he has simultaneously promised to bolster those areas.

With Franken yet to weigh in, there's still a chance to adjust the calculations and get a bridge that satisfies all parties.

If, for example, the project's "purpose and need" language were changed to include not only its traffic capacity objectives but also its context to natural and historic surroundings, then a new low-profile bridge could be approved by the Park Service within two years (especially if Congress demands it). Couple that with MnDOT's talent for design and construction and Wisconsin's ability to secure bonds, a new span could be open for traffic within five years. That estimate comes from Jim Erkel, transportation director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

"I hope Sen. Franken keeps an open mind about the need to meet traffic capacity while also protecting the scenic value of the river," Erkel said.

A new bridge has been talked about for decades. Moving ahead is important. But it's also important to move ahead in a way that doesn't damage one of the nation's most beautiful river valleys.

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Comments (12)

The assertion from mega bridge advocates that it will take ten years to get a new bridge design is simply not true. How long did it take to approve the new 35W bridge design? Obviously, in return for an environmentally less impactful bridge the review process could be expedited and the design and engineering could be also. The ten year claim is disingenuous at best and one Mayor Haryski loves to tout and mysteriously enough Dayton and Klobuchar have swallowed. I drove through Stillwater last night, the bridge is now closed, and it was as dead as I have seen it in my 25 years living within sight downtown. Stores were open and nobody, but nobody, was downtown. Store owners should be careful what they wish for. Steve Berg is correct that with the sprawl that will materialize in Wisconsin and along HW 36 in Stillwater along with the deterioration of the scenic value of this part of the valley, Stillwater's downtown could loose significant business. Absolutely nobody I've talked to from the Twin Cities that likes to frequent our historic downtown thinks this mega bridge and accompanying HW 36 freeway is a good idea for business in downtown Stillwater. Know this fact, if Dayton and our Senators were to coalesce behind a lower and slower bridge that was one third the cost of the current outdated mega bridge design (and consequently environmentally responsible and not in violation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act), the bridge would be built within five years. It's not about jobs either, the transportation dollars will be invested in other projects as there is a backlog of ignored infrastructure needs left over from the Pawlenty era management of MNDOT. The jobs will simply be shifted, not created. This is all part of the terrible, misinformation campaign from mega bridge advocates and perpetuated by the Strib. Thanks, Steve, for injecting a bit of sanity back into this discussion.

Mr. Berg's suggestions are clear-headed. I am forwarding this column to Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Governor Dayton this morning.

The cynic in me says that Dayton and Klobuchar got on board the "big and fast" choice because; a. Bachman might still run against Klobuchar for her senate seat and they need to take that YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard) issue off the burner and, b. no bridge will be built without Wisconsin money as long as Walker is saying, "nope." This makes it easy for Dayton to say, "yep," since it can't happen anyway.

The river does need a better crossing option but look ahead. With the price of gasoline rising as fast as level of the St. Croix in spring time, how many cars are going to be crossing in five years? Ten? Fifteen? To put up a monstrosity designed to handle yesterday's traffic levels is not the answer.

Ok, I've figured it out: an option that will fix traffic in Stillwater, cost nothing, prevent sprawl, and not spoil the river. Close the current bridge to all but pedestrians and bikes. Then don't build another. Anyone who thinks it's reasonable to drive from Wisconsin to work in Minneapolis can either cross at 94... or pedal.

I'm convinced that the traffic problems in downtown Stillwater are a result of some bad decisions about street and highway design which encourage bad decisions by travelers coming through town. I think the current bridge has more than enough capacity -- it's mostly restricted by the intersection at Chestnut and Main Street.

Left turns for traffic coming off the bridge into Stillwater probably should have been banned years ago. It would have been better for traffic to filter through downtown instead. When travelers make a left turn off the bridge, there are only two blocks left of downtown before they go into a long stretch without any options to exit.

Similarly, eastbound traffic coming in on MN-36 gets squeezed down at the interchange with MN-95. It'd be better if MN-36 got reduced to one eastbound lane at 4th Street/Osgood Ave or Beach Road, encouraging more people to filter through town to reach the bridge or downtown businesses.

I'd really prefer to see a replacement bridge go right where the existing one is, or perhaps landing one block north at Myrtle Street, which runs straight through town (though it's very steep).

Everybody wants "their" bridge built. As a result, nothing will be built. That's my prediction. We will still be discussing the safety of the lift bridge in 2021 -- if it's still standing.

Apparently no one learned anything from the 35W debacle. Thirteen people had to die for anything to happen. History will repeat itself, I guarantee you.

Thank you, Steve Berg, for injecting some much-needed nuance to this black-or-white debate. I suspect it is the big $ and jobs that makes a mega-bridge most attractive in politician's eyes. That, and the points to be scored by being seen to take action against the supposedly ignorant and insensitive feds...

I hate to be the one to tell Mr. Klein but the world does not revolve around Minneapolis. There are plenty of folks who work in Washington County, not to mention Ramsey County. Who would like not wasting the gas (since we are so green here)to go the extra miles to cross the river.

There is nothing you can do to the existing bridge to keep it a safe intersection for semi's and my personal favorite horse trailers. A new bridge needs to be built and it needs to be adequate for 21st century traffic not some nostalgic vision. The aesthetics are a question of personal taste. Is the High Bridge aesthetically pleasing, how about the Hastings Bridge, the Hennepin Ave Bridge.

Pick one and get on with it.

@David Moufang: 35W Bridge carried 140,000 vehicles a day. Stillwater Lift Bridge carries 18,000 vehicles a day. Just one of many reasons why that is a not a reasonable parallel to draw.

I am from Chisago Lakes area, so I am quite familiar with the St. Croix River Valley. I have dealt with the traffic in Downtown Stillwater first hand, many times. There is no way this needs to be a $750m investment. Berg is absolutely right, that is a big box solution in an every shrinking development scale economy. Find a something reasonable in the middle like he suggests, not this out of proportion bluff to bluff bridge.

David, we did learn from the 35W bridge collapse. You have to fund transportation and then use the dollars wisely. Opting for a more sensible St. Croix river crossing that costs half or a third as much will enable two more bridges to be built in addition to a new bridge over the St. Croix. That's a win/win situation and makes us all safer. Don't believe them about the ten years to a new design. That's simply not true. If Dayton and Klobuchar want a new bridge built badly enough they can get a smaller one designed and reviewed very quickly. Compliance with current environmental law will help expedite the entire process.

Hey Stillwater bridge naysayers, opponents, proponents, and soothsayers here is a possible plausible solution for scenic river views, engineering excellence, perpetual maintenance revenues, and just plain dynamic infrastructure ingenuity.---Build a expressway [4-lanes+] toll tunnel like other major cities and countries!

If San Francisco can have the BART tunnels, the English & French have the [English Channel]"Chunnel"{toll}, New York has its Holland, Hudson, and Lincoln toll tunnels, as well as NY Transit Authority's subway tunnels then why not Wisconsin and Minnesota build the St.Croix Interstate Tunnel?

The initial costs for constructing the infrastructures and the tunnel drilling might be a few greenbacks more but an expressway style 'toll' tunnel might be the overall solution for keeping within all the environmental, scenic river, engineering, and aesthetic mandates put forth so far. The United States is no stranger to drilling tunnels for transportation infrastructure purposes. The same holds true for European countries as well.

If tunnels can be drilled or built in various challenging underwater locales in this country, constructing a tunnel under the St. Croix River should be easier than SF Bay's earthquake zones, the Chesapeake Bay, the Hudson River[NYC], or the Bostonian 'Big Dig' and the Charles River.

SO why not???

How come we never see a photo or a drawing of the coal-burning electric power plant in Oak Park Heights between Stillwater and Bayport? That facility was built in the 1960s.

Opponents of a new bridge love to pretend that the St. Croix south of the north city limits of Stillwater is a Wild River, inhabited by prehistoric saber toothed tigers and the like.

In fact, it is a busy commercial river with thousands of boats ranging in size from kayaks up to tows pushing barge-loads of coal that keep that power plant in operation, generating electricity for much of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The plans originally called for it to be designated a recreational river, but environmentalist consider that to have just been a ploy in order to get their first bill passed.