WASHINGTON — The stark divisions among Minnesota lawmakers over a new $700 million St. Croix River bridge were on stark display during a House debate on Wednesday night, all while their Wisconsin colleagues presented unified support for the project.
The House of Representatives is set to vote on a bill authorizing the construction of the new bridge on Thursday. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, said the bridge is one of the most delayed infrastructure projects in the nation and argued its chief opponent, Democrat Betty McCollum, would be solely to blame if it fails now.
“If Rep. McCollum gets her way, she will kill building the bridge over the St. Croix River,” she said. “The responsibility for the increased costs of building this bridge rests on the shoulders of Rep. McCollum and her compatriots who have fought for decades to kill the building of this bridge.”
By “compatriots,” Bachmann was referring to environmental organizations that have opposed building a new bridge because the St. Croix is a federally protected river. A few lawmakers argued against the bridge on those grounds Wednesday night, but McCollum was not one of them: she’s maintained that she supports replacing the 81-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge and would vote for an exemption to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for such a project, but the new bridge mandated by the bill is fiscally irresponsible.
“[The bridge project] represents wasteful government spending, bad transportation policy and bad environmental policy,” she said. “What would the Tea Party call an effective, efficient use of taxpayers’ dollars? Would they call this that?”
McCollum’s main argument against the bridge is that it’s too large — a four-lane bridge to support only 16,000 vehicles a day — and too costly — $700 million. She called the bill an earmark, a maneuver that is banned by House rules, because it mandates spending at a certain level for a specific project, all while carving out an exemption for the project in federal law.
McCollum said the money set aside to build the bridge could be better spent on other transportation projects throughout the state, as DFL Gov. Mark Dayton (a bridge supporter himself) said will happen if Congress can’t approve the Stillwater project. Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison backed her up on that point, arguing that some of the money set aside for the St. Croix project could be better spent on a pair of new bridge projects in Minneapolis alone.
“I am incredibly sensitive to the need to fix our state’s bridges, our nation’s bridges,” he said, invoking the 2007 collapse of the Interstate-35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis. “A $700 million bridge, when we have structurally deficit bridges all over the state of Minnesota, all over the United States. This is not a good use of taxpayer money.”
Support from Wisconsin lawmakers
While Minnesota’s lawmakers are conflicted, Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans both took the floor Wednesday to support the project.
“I am convinced that this legislation is necessary, reasonable and time-sensitive,” said Tammy Baldwin, a liberal Democrat from Madison who is running for U.S. Senate.
Sean Duffy, a conservative first-term Republican, argued that the unusual bipartisan support the bill has received — from Democrats like Dayton and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken to Republicans like Bachmann and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — should be enough to convince the rest of the House to support the project.
“This is a pretty special day; it’s Leap Day. It comes around only once every four years. … Bipartisanship doesn’t come around that often, but it is here tonight on the House floor,” he said, adding: “You have Vikings and Packers supporting this bill! This is a remarkable day.”
Bachmann alluded to the same thing.
“We have a historic opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime magic moment when we have governors that are Republican and Democrat, senators that are Republican and Democrat, representatives that are Republican and Democrat saying, ‘For once, let’s come together and do what the people expect,’” she said. “Let’s do what should have been done decades ago, and let’s build this commonsense bridge.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry