WASHINGTON — A House panel approved a bill on Wednesday authorizing the construction of a long-delayed new bridge spanning the St. Croix River in Stillwater, over the objection of some Democrats. The bill now goes to the House floor.
Wednesday was the first time lawmakers had voted on the $700 million project, which is fully funded but needs congressional action to bypass federal environmental regulations. The vote was 30-14, with support from both parties.
The National Parks Service has ruled three times that a new bridge violates a section of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that protects rivers, like the St. Croix, from construction projects with “a direct and adverse effect on the values for which such river was” protected. Congressional action is required to bypass those rulings.
The funding for the bridge has already been set aside, but it expires in 2014. Since construction is expected to last three years, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton had enacted a Sept. 30 deadline for getting federal approval for the bridge. That deadline was malleable.
Ken Harycki and John Soderberg, the co-chairs of the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, applauded the committee’s actions after the vote.
“We have known for years that the St. Croix River Crossing is the best solution to solve our region’s unique environmental, traffic safety, and historic preservation goals. We are hopeful that Congress will agree and let this project finally move forward,” they said in a statement. “We need to work even harder now to make sure we don’t lose this opportunity to make the new bridge a reality.”
The bridge project enjoys bipartisan support. Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann sponsored the bill the House Natural Resources committee approved today; Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken sponsor the Senate equivalent; and the governors of Minnesota and Wisconsin, DFLer Dayton and Republican Scott Walker, support the project.
Despite that bipartisan backing, some Democrats on the committee worked to pin the legislation all on Bachmann, a tea party Republican who is running for president, calling it “a gargantuan earmark project requested by one representative,” in the words of New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt.
Some Democrats took offense to the bridge’s cost, despite the fact the $700 million needed for constructing the bridge and surrounding roadways has already been approved.
“The proponents of this project are not trying to build a bridge, they’re trying to build an icon,” said Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva, who compared the $700 million bridge with the much more heavily-trafficked Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, which cost $234 million.
Grijalva and Holt also opposed the bill on environmentalist grounds. Holt attempted to attach to the bill a stringent set of environmental mitigation measures to accompany the bridge’s construction. Holt’s standards would have replaced those already agreed upon by many of the bridge’s stakeholders, including the National Parks Service.
That measure failed, but the angst over Congress’s move to sidestep the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act remained.
“This bill is another … in a long series of assaults on public land and wilderness designation,” Holt said, noting the measure would be the first to bypass the Wild and Scenic River Act for a construction project as large as this one. “To depart from this protection for one giant earmark is a terrible precedent.”
Bachmann’s bill is also sponsored by Minnesota Rep. Chip Cravaack and Wisconsin Reps. Sean Duffy (R) and Ron Kind (D). After a procedural move by the committee, the bill now has the same language as its Senate counterpart, which is still in committee.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.