Fuss over Stillwater bridge mystifies U.S. House Republicans

The Stillwater Lift Bridge has been deemed structurally deficient and is often compared to the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation
The Stillwater Lift Bridge has been deemed structurally deficient and is often compared to the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis.

WASHINGTON — Controversy over the location, size, cost and impact of a new bridge over the St. Croix River has been going on in Minnesota for decades now.

But when Michele Bachmann’s bill to clear past the National Park Service’s regulatory objections to a new, freeway-style bridge connecting Minnesota to Wisconsin across the St. Croix River was presented, Republicans on the panel couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

 “I think it’s a dumb issue,” said Rob Bishop of Utah, who chaired a Wednesday hearing on the bill in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. “It should have been done a while ago.”

Furthermore, if a new bridge needs to be built, Bishop said it makes sense to build it big enough to handle any future traffic needs and to build it in an industrial area, near a wastewater treatment plant, rather than connecting it in Stillwater.

“It seems like a no brainer,” Bishop said. “It seems logical to do it.”

Comments like that from House Republicans, and support of the concept from some House Democrats like Wisconsin’s Ron Kind, means that Bachmann now has her best shot yet in her three-term career to get her first proper bill through the House, despite the fervent objections of other Democrats like Betty McCollum.

Pieces of the bridge and the costs of a new one
Last week, an ambulance driver headed back to Lakeview Hospital faced a decision that paramedics do all the time in crossing that bridge from Wisconsin back to Minnesota: To wait their turn or try and force through bridge traffic on a span without sufficient shoulder room.

As they almost always do, they went for the quickest route. And, as often happens, a car that couldn’t move over enough had its wing mirror snapped clean off.

Kurt Geissler, president of Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater, said he’s lost count of the times an ambulance has lost its own wing mirrors or broken those on another car.

Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki brought pieces of the bridge to the hearing and set them on the committee table. There, in small plastic bags, were hunks of concrete and rusted-off metal that he’d picked up.

The Stillwater Lift Bridge has been deemed structurally deficient and, as with any bridge conversation in Minnesota, is often compared to the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis. That bridge had a rating of 50, the last time it was inspected before it fell. The Stillwater bridge 32.8, as inspected in July of 2009.

Harycki said it only makes sense, if you’re going to replace the bridge, to put in a new one that will be able to handle all the traffic it might see.

On the question of whether a new span must be built, there is no disagreement, McCollum said. However, there’s intense disagreement about just what should replace it.

“Clearly, this legislation can only be described as a stalking horse for an excessively expensive mega-bridge to be built only six miles from the existing eight lane Interstate-94 St. Croix River crossing,” McCollum said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann
Rep. Michele Bachmann

While Bachmann, Harycki and Geissler testified in favor of the proposed freeway-style bridge, McCollum and Oak Park Heights Mayor David Beaudet are among those in favor of a smaller, slower bridge that wouldn’t run bluff to bluff across the river, but would connect diagonally across.

Of the nearly $700 million price tag for the bridge and immediately related projects, Minnesota would be expected to pick up about $380 million of that, with Wisconsin adding in $250 million to $310 million. State Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht says that’s not right, that Minnesota has $363 million already set aside in “state highway trunk bonds and federal funds.” Instead, he said, Wisconsin is the state that hasn’t identified its costings.)

Opponents are quick to note that the estimate doesn’t include the costs of revamping roads from the bridge into St. Paul, which they say can’t come close to handling the load. That could increase the costs by another $200 million to $300 million, they say.

Beaudet says that, in a time of budget crunching, Minnesota simply doesn’t have it. “If Congresswoman Bachmann would earmark the money, I’m sure he’d [Dayton] take it.”

Bachmann said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has pledged his part, and both she and Harycki said Dayton told them that, should the congressional approval come through, Minnesota is committed to the bridge project and the money for that would be there. Dayton’s office confirmed that conversation, and Harycki’s retelling of it.

Beyond the House
The next step in this process is a full committee markup on the bill, then if it clears that a full debate and vote in the House. Republican leaders said no such markup has been scheduled, but they called it a question of when, not if.

In the Senate, which has a tradition of home-state deference, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has already gone on record in support of the project, though her plan to clear aside regulatory objections to the bridge differs slightly from Bachmann’s.

Klobuchar and Wisconsin’s Herb Kohl plan to introduce a similar, but not identical, measure in the next few weeks that would exempt the bridge project from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act using existing exemption procedures in that law. Wisconsin Rep. Kind said he would prefer a narrow tailoring like that as well.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Larry Downing
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

It’s worth emphasizing that neither plan would actually build a new bridge. Instead, they’re variations on ways to get around a National Park Service ruling that said a new span would be in violation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The St. Croix River was one of the original eight rivers included under that law, originally pushed by former Sen. Walter Mondale, and remains the only river in Minnesota included on that list.

The core difference between the two plans, legislative analysts say, is that Klobuchar’s bill uses existing law while Bachmann’s goes around it. And that’s an important distinction to the National Park Service, a senior official told the committee.

“We are very concerned about the precedent that such legislation would establish, given that the [Interior] Department found the bridge project would have a direct and adverse effect on the designated river,” said Steve Whitesell, NPS associate director for park planning, facilities and land.

Still, as Whitesell noted under questioning from Chairman Bishop, the Park Service opposes the proposed freeway-style bridge, no matter if it’s an exemption or end-around. If Congress is going to do it anyway, Whitesell said, they’d rather lawmakers not set that precedent.

Sen. Al Franken is currently undecided on the bridge project as a whole and is weighing the matter, a spokesman said.

“Sen. Franken wants to make a thoughtful decision about this issue and is carefully evaluating all the input he’s received from key stakeholders, but plans to weigh in soon,” said spokesman Ed Shelleby. “He’s visited the site, spoken with residents, local elected officials, and representatives from the National Park Service, and talked with environmental groups.”

Bachmann said she’d prefer identical legislation in the Senate to ensure the bill gets passed as worded, and not revised or pushed aside in favor of something else that might give “bureaucrats” a chance to further stall the legislation.

A White House spokesman said they had no comment on the legislation so far.

But it’s worth noting that at least part of the Obama administration, in the form of the National Park Service, is strenuously opposed to the project no matter what the bill looks like.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 05/05/2011 - 11:04 am.

    They are mystified and see no issues. Let’s ask them to pay for the bridge and then check their support.

    Excluding the environmental debate, the main issue here is why Minnesotans should pay for a bridge that will disproportionately benefit Wisconsin. Governor Dayton just reallocated something like $400 Million construction dollars to maintenance to try and save our roads. That $400 million will barely keep us in place on maintenance. Where is this $400 million coming from for the bridge? People south of the MN River could probably find a use for it. If we are going to finance suburban sprawl, let’s at least keep the people and tax base in Minnesota.

    If Wisconsin wants a new bridge where they can plant another “open for business” sign, let them pay for it.

  2. Submitted by Doug Seitz on 05/05/2011 - 11:53 am.

    I was amused when I recently received a letter from our Congressional Representative, Michelle Bachmann, coming out in support of the freeway style bridge option across the St. Croix River.

    The freeway style bridge from bluff to bluff is by far the more expensive of the two choices, and Bachmann is, or at least says she is, doing everything she can to hold down the size of the federal deficit. Yet she wants to spend the better part of a billion dollars, or more, on a bridge to, well, nowhere.

    I don’t mean to disparage western Wisconsin, but, really, other than a few small towns and several thousand commuters there isn’t much there. Do we really want to spend at least 750 million dollars to build a freeway style bridge over there when a cheaper alternative, a lower and smaller bridge, would get the commuters here and back just as easily? Anyone familiar with the “Bridge to Nowhere” controversy can only chuckle at the resemblance to this bridge idea.

    Bachmann says the current bridge is traveled by 22,000 vehicles day, a figure which, incidentally, I doubt, considering Bachmann’s famously loose control of the facts. But even if so, we build a quarter of a billion dollar bridge to accommodate 22,000 vehicles a day?

    And overbuilding roads and bridges creates reality, it doesn’t accommodate it. If we build such a bridge, western Wisconsin will surely become another Woodbury, and who wants that, other than a bunch of developers.

    Bachmann also says one benefit to building a freeway style bridge is that it will create jobs. For starters, she doesn’t believe the government should be in the business of creating jobs, but wouldn’t a smaller bridge also create jobs?

    She also says she will do everything she can to “ensure the beauty … of our waterways.” I can’t think of anything that will “uglify” the river more than a freeway style bridge. It would be the dominant thing we see when looking at the river. It would overpower everything of scenic value.

    Once again, what Bachmann says and what she does differ widely. While claiming to want to reduce federal sending, she now wants to throw more money than necessary at a problem. And she does so claiming that the project will create jobs, which she otherwise says is not in the government’s domain.

    I’d chuckle, if it weren’t such a bad idea.

  3. Submitted by donald maxwell on 05/05/2011 - 11:59 am.

    The bridge as proposed, and the repaired bridge in Stillwater, will both serve to expand long-distance commuting over a highway system that is overloaded now. Any new bridge that does not include at least provisions for, if not actual track for, rail commuting from Wisconsin to the Twin Cities infant rail system, is just not looking forward.

  4. Submitted by Nancy McReady on 05/05/2011 - 01:12 pm.

    This debate of whether the bridge across the St. Croix should be built has been ongoing for over 15 years.
    Back in 1997, Stillwater City Administrator, Nile Kriesel, was invited to a land use conference in Int’l Falls to relate land use issues on the St. Croix River.
    In 1976, the St. Croix was designated a Wild and Scenic River. The lift bridge between Stillwater and Hudson, Wisconsin has been deemed unsafe and needs major repairs YEARS ago.
    Talk of a new bridge elsewhere on the St. Croix had been discussed, and Minnesota and Wisconsin agreed a new bridge is necessary. $14 million over the years (at that time)had been spent on research and design.
    In June of 1996, the Sierra Club filed an action against the Department of Interior stating the bridge would adversely impact the St. Croix. Stillwater and the State of Minnesota filed an action against the Department of Interior and the Sierra Club, stating this is not a water resources project. Back then, the Sierra Club had an issue with building a new bridge. If it is built, they wanted the old bridge, which is on the Minnesota and National Historic Registry, removed.
    Kriesel acknowledged that power controls decisions, not facts. Maybe we should just wait for the bridge to collapse like the 35W bridge.
    Kriesel noted how slanted the Star Tribune is against people and issues of Northern Minnesota. He said he received far more valuable information about Northern Minnesota and land use issues than he gave about his situation.
    At that time, Conservationists with Common Sense (CWCS)sent a letter of support for building the new bridge. Currently I am president of CWCS and we continue to give our support.

    Nancy McReady
    CWCS President

  5. Submitted by Tom Clark on 05/05/2011 - 01:27 pm.

    For the record, the Nat’l Park Service DID sign off on the last bridge proposal, which was along the same high bridge corridor as the Braun plan they rejected in 1996. When a judge asked them about why they considered the 1996 proposal to harm the scenery while the latest one was o.k., they weren’t able to tell him what their criteria was. So they again changed their minds and have now said they’re completely opposed to the high bridge corridor, forever. So it’s appropriate to cut them out of the process, because they’re frankly not a reliable partner who can be trusted to judge what is “scenic” and what isn’t.

  6. Submitted by Cecil North on 05/05/2011 - 04:18 pm.

    (#4): “At that time, Conservationists with Common Sense (CWCS)sent a letter of support for building the new bridge. Currently I am president of CWCS and we continue to give our support.”

    And, CWCS also favors opening ANWR to the oil companies, along with various other environmentally questionable initiatives. Thanks, but no thanks.

  7. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 05/05/2011 - 07:05 pm.

    Has anyone thought of spending a few bucks more to construct a toll-road type St.Croix River tunnel connecting Wisconsin and Minnesota?

    The river crossing would be out of sight/view and be self maintaining like other toll-road US tunnels in other states. This type of crossing should make everybody happy. Why have a bridge when a tunnel could easily do the job? Think about it!

  8. Submitted by Brenda Bredahl on 05/06/2011 - 07:09 am.

    The upper St. Croix was protected in 1968 by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; the lower riverway in 1972. In 1964 NSP (now Xcel Energy) announced intentions to build a coal fired plant at Bayport. It was built and put online in 1968. There was also plans to build a hydroelectric plant at Nevers Dam; that was shelved.

    Essentially NSP Co. donated thousands of acres it owned and entered into an agreement with the National Park Service and the state DNRs; the federal protection of the riverway happened and and coal plant built. All was a compromise with citizen groups leading the way to “save the St. Croix.” Both sides got a portion of their demands.

    This compromise and positive end result is finely documented in the book North Woods River by E. McMahon and T. Karamanski.

    Both sides need to look at history to forge a path to the future. As a valley resident, I have no doubts that a new crossing is needed; 90% of my coworkers at a Wisc. Company are from Minnesota and many are terrified of this outdated, unsafe bridge.

    There needs to be concessions for future protection of the riverway. A slower bluff-top bridge with a visitor center would be an ideal solution. Can lands surrounding a new bridge be put in trust to the DNRs or NPS? Imagine an NPS visitor center (seasonal or unstaffed) on the lower riverway at a new bridge crossing so drivers can pull off and appreciate the beautiful river. Or an unstaffed bi-state/NPS facility with overlook/trails on the river and perhaps a park-and-ride. A little of the 1960s foresight and political compromise of Sens. Gaylor Nelson and Walter Mondale and citizens is needed.

    Depending on interpretation of the law, there is a coal barge dock on the riverway that is unused by Xcel that could be removed to satify the Act’s requirement that if a structure goes up, one must come down. Then the iconic, historic Stillwater Lift Bridge could be kept as a walking/fishing pier, with a portion on the Wisconsin side removed for boat traffic.

    I have a dream…

  9. Submitted by Bob Hawbaker on 05/06/2011 - 08:01 am.

    Building a high-capacity roadway over the St. Croix will significantly change the landscape on both sides of the river, not from road construction, but from the type of development it will encourage. Wisconsin “needs” it so that residents of new development can easily access the Twin Cities. Traffic-oriented development will line the way from the river to Woodbury.

    New roads generate their own traffic, and opening up easy access to Wisconsin will clearly do that.

  10. Submitted by Erik Schimek on 05/06/2011 - 08:40 am.

    If you remove unnecessary regulation, then the private sector will be freed to come in and build the bridge more efficiently. A toll bridge will pay for itself.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 05/06/2011 - 09:30 am.

    The old axion needs to be kept in mind whenever Michele Bachmann is talking, that is…..”Empty wagons make the most noise”.

  12. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 05/06/2011 - 11:47 am.

    Why are we even considering having Minnesota pay most of the cost for this monstrosity to facilitate exurban sprawl in Wisconsin? At at time when we’re trying to reduce our environmental impact, encouraging this sort of sprawl is the last thing we should be doing.

    If it’s built, can we at least stop pretending that the lifestyle of newer suburbs isn’t subsidized by the rest of us?

  13. Submitted by Nancy McReady on 05/06/2011 - 04:11 pm.

    A toll bridget would also be an excellent idea to help with the cost.
    @Cecil… yes a good energy policy to make us oil independent would include drill for our own oil rather than using up others. Whether it’s ANWR or the shale oil of the Midwest, we have more than enought to satisfy our energy needs right here. Then we wouldn’t have to subsidize wind and solar which will never replace oil.

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