WASHINGTON — A much-delayed replacement for the 80-year-old St. Croix River bridge in Stillwater has bipartisan support from Minnesota and Wisconsin politicians, and a late push to pass a bill approving the project within the next couple of months began Thursday at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing.
Even though funding has already been approved for the $700 million replacement bridge, it still needs congressional approval. A bill authorizing the bridge’s construction has support from both Democratic Minnesota senators, Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Wisconsin Sens. Herb Kohl and Ron Johnson (a Republican) and both states’ governors, Mark Dayton (DFL) and Scott Walker (R).
But the bill needs to pass before Sept. 30, a deadline Dayton has set for receiving the approval. The funds to build the bridge expire in 2014, and it’s expected to take at least three years to get the permits required to construct the span, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. She testified at a Senate hearing on the bridge bill Thursday.
“The states have the resources necessary to start construction,” she said. “So what are we waiting for? It’s time to break the deadlock and bring this project out of bureaucratic limbo. We’ve waited long enough and it’s time to move forward.”
A replacement needs Congressional approval because it has to navigate a bureaucratic set of laws and regulations that have thus far stopped the project from going forward.
At issue is the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a bill originally written by Walter Mondale that protects scenic portions of the country’s rivers. Congress added the St. Croix River to the protected list in 1972.
A section of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act prohibits construction of a project that would have “a direct and adverse effect on the values for which such river was” protected. By that standard, the National Park Service has denied three separate proposed replacement bridges, the first in 1996 and most recently in 2010.
The co-sponsors of the Klobuchar bill are asking for an exemption to that provision. They say the current plans have environmental mitigation measures, developed through a community development process, that are strong enough to fulfill that standard. But National Park Service Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell said the Park Service doesn’t think those measures are sufficient.
“The St. Croix River Project would have a direct and adverse impact to the river … these impacts cannot be mitigated,” she said in testimony.
In order to get around the standard, and the Park Service’s opposition, Congress and the President need to approve the project.
Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki told the committee about the process that molded the current proposal. A group of 27 different organizations from all levels of government met to consider many different factors associated with building the bridge, including location and environmental and historic impact. By converting the old bridge to a bike and walkway and locating the replacement in an industrial area of the crossing, Harycki said they were able to both preserve the historic nature of the old bridge and protect the environmental aesthetics of the river.
“I assure you that the people who live and work in the St. Croix River Valley have done everything possible to create the best possible plan for the entire region,” he said. “We care deeply about the river that united our communities.”
Questions of size and cost
But the large and expensive freeway-style bridge has spawned opposition.
Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum has long opposed the current plan, calling it an “irresponsible and over-sized boondoggle,” citing its high cost (three times as high as that of the new Interstate 35W span in downtown Minneapolis) in a letter to lawmakers Thursday.
Roger Tomten, a Stillwater business owner, also testified against the bill, asking the committee to deny the exemption for the new span and urging support for a smaller, less-expensive bridge.
The bridge he pitched is physically smaller and has lower speed limits than the generally accepted plan. Tomten, a member of the community stakeholder review group, said it is a more fiscally responsible proposal than the current plan.
Called the “Sensible Stillwater” bridge, Tomten said it would cost $300 million less and come with a top speed limit of 40 miles per hour.
“To move this mega-bridge plan forward when our nation is locked in debate over spending and the state of Minnesota is coping with a $5 billion budget deficit makes no sense,” he said.
But Klobuchar and others said there is no time to approve a new plan, given how quickly Dayton’s deadline is coming. A new bridge proposal would need to go through a new bureaucratic review process like to the one the current proposal has already completed, and with Dayton’s deadline arriving quickly, she said there’s no time for that.
Klobuchar added that she’s working with the governor’s office to push back that Sept. 30 deadline should congressional action come slowly on her bill.
In addition to the bipartisan group co-sponsoring the bill, it appeared to receive bipartisan support on the committee as well. Both Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat, and Sen. Ron Paul, a Tea Party Republican from Kentucky, said they’re in favor of the plan.
Franken jokingly looked to solidify that support during the hearing.
“Colorado and Kentucky are just exquisite states,” he said, overemphasizing reverence for comedic effect, “and we’d appreciate a vote for the bridge.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.