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Stillwater bridge: Bachmann's version fails to match new market realities

One concept for a new Stillwater bridge.
Source: Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
One concept for a new Stillwater bridge.

If we were living in, say, 1965, Michele Bachmann's version of a four-lane, freeway-style Stillwater Bridge might seem to make sense.

Back then, the idea that some rivers should be protected as "wild and scenic" hadn't yet become federal law. Environmentalism itself hadn't yet taken hold as a civic value. The unintended consequences of sprawled development were not yet apparent.

Few people understood the downside of the super-sized highways and bridges that were popping up everywhere; that they would induce lifestyle changes that would impose big costs, for example, on air quality, climate, energy supply and foreign policy. Few understood the social expenses that all the new driving-dependent commerce would levy on older cities left behind. Few realized the inefficiency costs that a new and largely redundant infrastructure would leave for local governments and future taxpayers.

What the congresswoman proposes now is a mid-20th century solution to a 21st century problem. In reality, it's good that a new high-profile bridge over the scenic St. Croix River just south of Stillwater has been held up for more than a decade because it's now clearer that such a bridge would be a mistake. Gov. Mark Dayton was right to impose a reevaluation of the project, not solely because of the National Park Service's aesthetic objections but because a high-profile, high-speed, high-capacity bridge is not in Minnesota's best interest.

Benefit should be reexamined
• Start with the money. Spending as much as $698 million ($450 million from Minnesota) on the super-sized bridge would benefit primarily several thousand Wisconsin commuters and could invite an explosion of cross-river development of homes and jobs in the future. Why would that be good for Minnesota's economy and tax base? Why would it be good metropolitan policy? Why would it be good for the scenic and environmental qualities of the St. Croix valley?

In defending a large-scale bridge, Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel told the Star Tribune: "The last thing we would want to do is build a [smaller] bridge that would be put at capacity as soon as the economy turns around."

But Kriesel assumes that a new and recovering economy will be identical to the old one. That's not likely. It would be wiser for public policy to anticipate new kinds of markets for housing, business and transportation that fit new global realities: less sprawl, less dependence on long-distance driving, less excessive fuel burning and more modest highway projects that reflect the need not only for government efficiency but for efficiency in business and lifestyle.

Put another way, government should not continue to subsidize old-market behaviors as new markets emerge. The big-bridge design is obsolete. It would carry four lanes of traffic high above the river, from bluff-top to bluff-top. It would accommodate heavy trucks at speeds of 65 mph. It would be, in fact, a suburban freeway-style crossing in a setting that requires more finesse, both in design and in economic purpose.

Same dollars, more bridges
• Spending nearly $700 million on a single bridge project when many others are lined up for repair is another money problem. MnDOT's latest report reveals five large bridges not scheduled for repair or replacement until after 2018 that could move up in the bonding process if a more modest Stillwater Bridge were built at, say, two-thirds the cost. Those include Mississippi River crossings in Winona ($185 million) and Red Wing ($150 million) and major projects in Baudette, East Grand Forks and New Ulm ($44 million to $70 million each).

• A third objection to a mega-bridge is that it's designed to solve a problem (relentless commuter congestion) that doesn't really exist. On Thursday, a normal workday, during the so-called teeth of the morning rush hour, I drove from Somerset, Wis., toward Stillwater. At the top of the bluff, gazing across at one of America's most picturesque towns, I descended to the river, crossed the old Lift Bridge, proceeded through town and on toward St. Paul down Hwy. 36 without delay. Traffic was light to moderate. No more than eight or ten cars stacked up after the bridge to turn left down Main Street in Stillwater, but it wasn't a big deal. I took an alternate street and did just fine, not hitting any serious traffic until Maplewood.

Congestion is a seasonal problem in the St. Croix Valley, having mainly to do with summer tourism. It's a relatively happy problem that nearly every scenic area must endure. It's a problem better solved by a scenic bridge that fits the character of Stillwater's magical setting and the pace of local community life. Engineers call it "context sensitive design" and that's what a new river crossing should employ.

It's clear that the old Lift Bridge must be replaced. Even the environmental groups opposing the big-bridge idea favor a smaller bridge. (Bachmann accused them of pursuing a "radical political agenda" and demanded that they "stop lying about my legislation.") Environmental groups accuse Bachmann of "earmarking" the big bridge project. Actually, her bill would exempt a large-scale bridge from the National Park Service's disapproval. It includes no appropriation. Still, one assumes that Bachmann would vote for the money needed to approve the bigger bridge if it ever came before Congress. "It's fair to call this 'a bridge to hypocrisy,' " said Jim Erkel, land use and transportation director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Politics aside, low might a more modest bridge look and how might it operate?

Design would fit Stillwater's character
Here's my favorite scenario: Even if the new crossing is at Oak Park Heights as currently planned, the new bridge would be low to the water, matching the profile of the Lift Bridge as closely as possible. Its design would fit Stillwater's historic character. A mechanism would allow the bridge to lift or swing to allow taller boats to pass. A single span accommodating three lanes of traffic and no heavy trucks would be sufficient. The center lane would carry westbound traffic in the mornings and eastbound in the afternoons. Speeds (and noise) would be kept relatively low. Tolls would help repay construction bonds and upkeep expenses. The tolls would change depending on traffic demand. The old Lift Bridge would be retained as a pedestrian and bike crossing and a recreational pier.

That's a cheaper, smarter solution that matches the realities of the day. It imposes less on the river while taking some traffic pressure off Main Street during the summer months. It takes advantage of MnDOT's considerable skill at managing traffic congestion at minimal cost. It matches the MnDOT-Metropolitan Council Transportation Policy Plan, which places a priority on maintaining current roads and bridges while using other means (traffic management, tolls, transit and compact development) to improve mobility. Most of all, it produces a bridge that fits the new century, not the old one.

Selected links: Bridge details; scoping; images; environmental impact statement; cost estimates.

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Comments (22)

Thank you, Steve. A good review. Though the higher-profile objection to the bridge (and the objection that has stalled it) is its impact on the designated Wild & Scenic River, 15 years ago the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy challenged the Met Council's approval of the proposed highway bridge on urban growth management grounds. Documents showed the Wisconsin counties and municipalities to be strong advocates for the bridge for the growth they expected it to bring. Transportation modeling indicated that the bridge would promote urban expansion in an area of Wisconsin equivalent to that forecast for the entire 7-county metro area in the Met Council's just-adopted (1996) growth management plan, and hence render that plan essentially nugatory.

The case went to the Mn Supreme Court, which did not want to wade into the political realm and thus dismissed it on a technicality concerning what sorts of executive branch decisions it could review. But to some of us, the regional planning aspect of the bridge has always been the most important. A bridge can be designed to serve regional and inter-regional needs, and relieve downtown Stillwater, without being a conduit for massive sprawl. This is an opportune time for MnDOT and the Met Council to revisit this more thoughtfully and creatively, and your use of your podium to urge that is appreciated.

Great article, a much more thought-out version of what I commented yesterday, which was that this is just a subsidy for people wanting to live in the far exurbs, who are not coincidentally the same people to whine first when taxes go up. I'm not even so certain the old bridge isn't fine.

Why wouldn't Bachmann favor a low to the water, cheaper bridge? It fits with her budget cutting agenda. Also the author here is correct to point out that why should Minnesotans support some Wisconsin people needing a quick freeway to their Minnesota jobs? It's just taking tax money out of the state.

It is a summertime problem and in the summer I would think you'd want two lanes in each direction. I don't see the bidirectional thing being very useful during tourist season since that idea is more appropriate to commuting.

Thanks for wading in deeper than my piece in the Star Tribune back in June of 2010. Chuck, thank you for your thoughtful comments as well.

Clearly the impact on sprawl is a great concern and the equity of the State of MN paying the majority of the costs for Wisconsin's growth does not make sense. The recent spike in gas prices should give everyone pause.

At the same time, downtown Stillwater warrants relief from the traffic. The current situation has environmental issues in air quality and congestion that impedes on commerce.

I agree with the bike/walk bridge use for the lift bridge. It has historical value and could be enjoyed as such for years to come. It would be a major draw.

The ultimate bridge solution is challenging. Much of the costs lies in creating access to the bridge on both sides of the river. Clearly a two or three lane bridge is in order. The question continues to be coming up with a design that is cost effective, easily and inexpensively maintained, and has the least impact on the scenic river.

How about having the University of MN's Design Center create some solutions to get us started?

Why not repair the existing bridge? Stillwater has adopted it as its symbol, much as Duluth has adopted its lift bridge as its emblem, and I've heard nothing about replacing or demolishing that bridge. Aside from the environmental question, aside from the architectural aesthetics of whatever bridge might be built, a crossing that BYPASSES Historic Downtown Stillwater would certainly seal its fate as a GHOST TOWN. Local retailers refuse to consider this threat -- they have been brainwashed into believing that the REAL threat to commerce and tourism is "all that TRAFFIC" (which, as pointed out in the article above, does not really exist.)
If the 4-lane freeway-style bridge is built, how would Highway 36 accommodate the added congestion? In all the discussions of the promised "benefits" of this bridge, this subject has been ignored. Instead of having a traffic jam that starts in Maplewood and extends all the way to Minneapolis, such a bridge would guarantee a traffic jam that starts in New Richmond, Wisconsin and continues all the way to Minneapolis.
Michele Bachmann -- or members of her family -- own some farmland in Wisconsin, somewhere near the highway that would feed this bridge. Could she be anticipating a sudden rise in the value of that land when her bridge is built?

The problem with the bridge is its Presentation it shows a big brown over powering object ruining the aspect of the St. Croix River, eye pollution if you will, it looks similar to the new bridges at the Minneapolis 35W & 62 Cross-town Interchange, without looking up pictures have a view of the new 35W bridge and Hwy. 94 bridge at Hudson as being white, sleek, and less runniness to the esthetics of the site.

Just need a new design and a new presentation, another lift bridge, this is 2011, leave the river open for people to enjoy. Old enough to remember the long battle for a Cedar Ave. Bridge and is has capacity issues at times. Good luck to Stillwater.

Brilliant article. I would just make two points, firstly, the bridge should be just tall enough to let boats pass thru, a low bridge would be too susceptible to flooding, and they really need the free flow of traffic throughout the summer months. Secondly, they should and could get it done for about 1/3 the cost they are now proposing (~200-250 million).

Yeah, you'd think being the last small town in America with a minor congestion problem would be a good thing.

Can well all just be reminded that there is a six-lane freeway bridge literally less than 10 minutes to the south?

Wow, reading this article takes me to a different Neverland than Congresswoman Bachmann inhabits. While I agree that a scenic area like the St. Croix valley deserves an attractive bridge, you must be joking if you think that a three-lane swing bridge has any credibility at all. Bridges are built to meet the needs of commerce and population growth. Without an economic justification, a new bridge will never be built. Highway 36 should have been rerouted to go around Stillwater over a decade ago. Just think how much more pleasant Stillwater would be in the summertime if all those cars were not going through it.

Winona's new bridge is scheduled to begin construction in 2014. We're currently waiting to find out if the existing one can be rehabed in which case a companion span would be added.

If a total replacement is done, MnDOT thinks that six lanes will be needed in the future (four traffic, two shoulders wide enough for emergency, maintenance or stalled vehicles to not impede the traffic.) As of now, the only congestion on the bridge happens during rush hours if one of the two lanes is blocked. There is rush hour congestion leading up to the bridge, but that's due to narrow streets with sharp turns that trucks can't easily negotiate.

I suppose that the planers base their traffic projections by looking back seventy years and assume that growth will continue at that pace far into the future.

BTW: My "traditional" neighborhood, with most of life's daily needs within walking distance, sits in the path of a likely bridge touchdown intersection. I'm hoping for a generous buyout offer, but was told that MnDOT's priority in that regard is to lookout for the interests of the taxpayers.

The congestion in downtown Stillwater is not a "minor problem" It is a problem that exists throughout the year and includes year-round truck congestion. Stillwater residents continually reroute their journeys in order to avoid the congestion on Main Street and Chestnut Street. Downtown Stillwater Merchants have not been "brainwashed" on the need for a new bridge. They know from long experience that the congestion has stopped local people from coming to downtown Stillwater in order to get their meat and groceries, their prescriptions filled and see their doctors and dentists in addition to making it more difficult for tourists to come and spend the afternoon. A new bridge has been discussed as long as I can remember. The historic Oak Park Heights residential section where my great-grandparents owned a house was demolished years ago in order to make way for the bridge. A new bridge is long overdue and condescending statements about the Stillwater business owners and residents's misguided and brainwashed views do not help the resolution of this problem.

Steve, first you blast Bachman on "What the congresswoman proposes now is a mid-20th century solution to a 21st century problem." Then you go on "Here's my favorite scenario:...the new bridge would be low to the water, matching the profile of the Lift Bridge as closely as possible."

Now that is a mid-20th solution.

And Jeff S. #7, I wouldn't call it a "Brilliant article" but your two points are the best ones I've heard yet. 700 million, there is no need to spend that much and build it so you don't need to worry about flooding and boating issues.


I believe MnDot did address the Hwy 36 issue at some point, saying that it could NOT accommodate the increased traffic that a big new bridge would generate.

All of this discussion is simply ignoring the fact that Minnesota has managed its transportation infrastructure exceptionally poorly. How many years did they squabble over the 35W/62 issue? And it took a collapse and 13 innocent souls dying to replace that bridge. The Lowry Tunnel was designed for 1960s traffic demands, and I'm sure it would cost in the billions to bring it up to 1990s standards. That obviously ain't happening.

I have a feeling that Steve Berg will get his way simply because the arguing will stall this thing for at least another decade. Essentially, nothing will happen.

So here we sit. It takes a miracle to get any sort of project off the ground, especially with trains. Meanwhile, the system grinds to a halt on crumbling roads.

The environmental, cost and urban sprawl arguments dictate a design much like proposed in the article. I agree that the bridge should not be bluff to bluff, but at least a section of it in the middle should be high enough to let boats pass through as noted by Jeff Sullivan.

The bridge should have more two lanes, not three. That would be enough to handle the commuter traffic as we have now without encouraging more.

There could also be a one-way toll collection during rush hour to discourage sprawl into Wisconsin and to partially pay for the bridge. Transponders make toll collection an easy choice these days.

The need for a new bridge is clear. It also seems clear to me that this should be a toll bridge to help mitigate the cost and to assign the true costs to those who use the bridge for long distance commuting.

As someone who goes to downtown Stillwater on a regular basis throughout the year, less traffic would make the main street a more pleasant place and more safe for pedestrians.

As someone who tours the St. Croix River in a fishing boat, it seems odd that boat traffic would be a major concern. Boaters are unable to go upstream from Stillwater but a mile or two due to zebra mussel concerns. I have often advocated for less or no bridge raising during the summer months for boats that use more fuel than 1,000 commuters. Large boaters have access to quite a bit of river south of Stillwater, people in smaller boats can duck their heads! On the river, neither the 94 bridge or the Stillwater bridge are bothersome. The Stillwater Bridge is nice and scenic; the 94 bridge provides some summer shade.

The location of Bachmann's family farm is an interesting consideration. It makes me recall our former lt. gov/MDOT commissioner's profitable sale of her farm of the 212 rerouting through Chaska. It would be great to see a map!

I grew up in Stillwater and my parents live downtown, so I'm not unfamiliar with the congestion. I don't know how to quantify such a thing but it is my opinion that it's largely overstated. The reason that residents don't shop downtown is the same reason that every other old downtown died: they built a bunch of cheaper big-box stores on the periphery. I'd love to see people pay a little more to maintain a real downtown but they won't do it and I think the congestion is a red herring.

Excellent article, Steve, thanks for doing it!
Besides the "radical environmental" problems with the new bridge that Congresswoman Bachmann is completely wrong about, this project has no economic justification.
I believe the original estimated cost was $150 million. And, as you state, why is this good at all for Minnesota? Why should we pay for even half of it? Also, folks seem to forget that an existing interstate bridge is less than ten miles away from Stillwater.
Not only is the river a sublime and magical place, so close to a major metropolitan area, but the whole valley - on both sides - is still extremely scenic and relatively pristine.
Why should Minnesota promote more growth and development on the Wisconsin side, possibly at the loss of more of our citizens and our property tax base to that state? Our transportation money should be spent on our own bridge and highway repairs, and that money is dwindling.
It was very refreshing to see a thoughtful and clear article on the proposed bridge. Please continue your great work!

Steve, this is clearly the best commentary I've ever read on the St. Croix River crossing. Every point you make is spot on. The irony is that the tax policies Pawlenty and Bachmann have pushed on Minnesota make this irresponsible, extravagant megabridge impossible to finance. There are too many other infrastructure needs unserved after eight years of "no new tax" caused neglect. The bridge is too huge for the amount of traffic that exists today and that we'd like to exist tomorrow. The sprawl that would follow a huge freeway style bridge is no longer an economically viable form of suburban expansion. The tax rates and general fund revenues just don't support the far flung utility, roadway construction and maintenance that inefficiently follow sprawl and create unmanageable budget costs for cities and counties. Don't forget that a smaller, lower bridge designed for slower speeds would no longer necessitate destroying Stillwater's HW 36 business district since the existing boulevard structure could be left in tact. As for Bridgid's comments, I too am a Stillwater resident and live within blocks of the bridge. I know we need a new bridge. But this design has violated the law of the land from day one. It was MNDOT's hubris and poor management to disregard it and risk delay and money. In guiding the bridge process they never considered or allowed a scaled down version that might conform to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and actually enhance Stillwater as a community. A new monster bridge will ultimately be very bad for tourism and the health of Stillwater's downtown as well as the beauty and long term ecological health of the valley. The new realities of growth, taxes and stressed local governments have rendered the current design inoperable. The best recourse is to regroup, downsize the bridge and it will quickly become a reality.

I guess this is another time I make myself a target for having an unpopular view - at least locally.

I do love Stillwater and the St Croix River.

I also love magnificent bridges with style. Manhattan, for example, has a plethora of long picturesque soaring arch bridges that New Yorkers and tourists alike love. An engineering friend says iis possible to build a beautiful old fashioned arched or modern cable-stay bridge simply anchored at each shore without any ecology disturbing posts in the water at all. He says many world spans are much shorter than this. Moreover he says the traffic certainly can be low - the roadway does not have to be at cliff-top level if it is hanging down from the support system. Kind of meets most such objections.

What about bridge height spoiling the area? Look less than a mile away from where HWY 36 curves north from the river by Bayport. Can anyone seriously say that a beautifully styled bridge will be less attractive than the 786 foot smokestack at the nearby Allen S King Power Plant - the 40th highest smokestack in the US.

Cost? A simple shore to shore long arch bridge should be no more expensive and perhaps less because there is no underwater work, and no environmental mitigation.

did I write "many world spans are much SHORTER"? I meant LONGER - as can be found on wiki.

Somebody needs to start fact-checking Michele Bachmann and her bridge advocate pals.

Your article is very enlightening. I do not grasp the low level bridge design you propose, with a mechanism that needs to maintained, (maintenance is not free by the way). That would stall pollution causing traffic exactly like the current bridge does when raised. You clearly did not see this effect when you drove from Somerset. This is not an improvement or solution, in any way, shape, or form.
Commuters from Wisconsin who work in Minnesota pay Minnesota income taxes. So, in actuality, they are helping with the cost. Do we not want more jobs in Minnesota?
The goal of any bridge is to get people across safely. If we add the word quickly to this statement, it becomes a more efficient bridge. With that said, I think it's imperative that we build a multilane bridge. I understand the enviromental concerns, they are real. The current plan has the bridge going just upstream from the Allen S King power plant which by the way, also was the model for a successful and growing peregrine falcon restoration effort, as the first plant in the nation to place a falcon nest box on it stacks. So, I do not believe a bridge in that area will harm the river any more than that. If we want to consider a "pretty" looking bridge design. Consider the Millau Viaduct in south France, which also spans a beautiful river valley. We have haggled far too long on this. Costs will continue to rise. An entire neighborhood was cleared many years ago, it's not built. Maybe we should change the name of the town from Stillwater to Stillnobridge. Enough said.