WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials told Minnesota and Wisconsin lawmakers fighting over the size and cost of a new bridge spanning the St. Croix River to form a working group on the topic and reach a consensus before pushing the project forward.
Members of the congressional delegation met with Secretaries Ray LaHood and Ken Salazar of the Transportation and Interior Departments to discuss the project Wednesday evening. The pair wouldn’t endorse pending legislation authorizing a controversial new $690 million bridge, and LaHood said the delegations would need to meet with Transportation Department officials to come to a consensus before pushing the legislation forward. Work group meetings have yet to be scheduled.
The proposed four-lane bridge project has craved the Minnesota delegation into unlikely contingencies of alliances and foes, with Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken paired with Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann and Chip Cravaack in supporting the planned replacement bridge in Stillwater. Legislation authorizing this version of the project awaits action from the full House and Senate.
Democrats Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison say that plan is too expansive and expensive. They introduced legislation this week capping the cost of the project at $574 million, arguing the reminder of the funds could go to repairing or replacing some of the 1,149 structurally deficient bridges in Minnesota.
State and federal funding for the bridge has already been appropriated, but the state is running up against a deadline for using a $160 million pot of federal money dedicated for the project.
“The state needn’t lose [the funding]. We should be spending it and investing it in other transportation needs,” McCollum Chief of Staff Bill Harper said after the meeting.
There is consensus on building a new structure to replace the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge, Harper said. The only question is how much should such a project cost. McCollum and Ellison’s bill would allow for the construction of a smaller bridge (like the so-called “Sensible Stillwater Bridge,” a three-lane span that would cost only $394 million, supporters said last week), and would provide for environmental mitigation efforts and an accelerated construction timeline.
State officials oppose the pair’s bill, however, since it would mean redesigning a replacement bridge and starting over from scratch, driving up inflation costs as time goes on, Minnesota Department of Transportation Tom Sorel said.
Noting the wide swath of support for the four-lane project — including Minnesota’s DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican — Bachmann’s office put out a statement reading, “There is so much support for the proposed, four-lane crossing. We must continue moving forward get this project started.”
Klobuchar dismissed McCollum and Ellison’s opposition to her bill on the grounds that she’s supported more expensive infrastructure projects in their districts, such as the Central Corridor light-rail line and a new Union Depot in St. Paul.
“I supported the Central Corridor and the Union Depot because I think they’re good for our state, just as I think replacing a bridge that is basically rusting out … is also good for our state,” she said.
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry