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Slowing growth could make Stillwater bridge ‘a dinosaur the day it opens up’

Courtesy of MnDOT
"The Metropolitan Council had a regional blueprint that suggested that investments in roads and sewers and other things that led to sprawl was not a good idea."

Second of two parts

Coverage of the Stillwater bridge controversy over the last 20 years has tended to emphasize “environmentalist” objections to the project, and I regularly meet people who think those were the only arguments raised against it.

In their minds, the opposition has been little more than NIMBY-type complaints from the Sierra Club and others who didn’t want “their valley” degraded by another concrete eyesore in the St. Croix River or by more sprawl in the still semi-rural counties to the east.

But back in the 1990s, when I first started writing about the subject for the Star Tribune editorial page, there was equally strong opposition from activist taxpayer groups who saw it simply as wasteful duplication of the I-94 freeway crossing six miles downstream.

Those arguments got much less attention. Still less was paid to what might be called planning and policy objections — issues that have been the primary concern of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

erkel portrait
Jim Erkel

In a long interview last week, Jim Erkel, a lawyer and transportation expert who directs MCEA’s land use and transportation program, discussed some of the lessons on planning and policymaking that can be drawn from the Stillwater bridge case. Excerpts from his comments follow:

On the planning case against the bridge

The Metropolitan Council had a regional blueprint that suggested that investments in roads and sewers and other things that led to sprawl was not a good idea. We were very concerned about the growth-inducing impacts of a freeway-style bridge across the St. Croix, population growth, the export of economic opportunities beyond the region.

We made the case that a freeway-style bridge was inconsistent with the council’s blueprint. In the first of many  instances in which politics trumped policy on this bridge, the council said, Nah, we really don’t care.

We decided to litigate under the Metropolitan Land Planning Act, which requires that system plans for things like transportation be consistent with everything else the council is doing. It went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and we lost, because the court found that the council was a “quasi-legislative” body, which means they can be as inconsistent as they wanna be. (The court’s 1999 decision is here.)

On prioritizing transportation needs

I believe that there is a technical and legal way to build a lower, slower bridge that will meet the transportation needs of the St. Croix River valley at lower cost.

So it could be built. Should it be built? That’s a matter of prioritization. You might well decide, in a fiscally constrained world, that when you stand it up against other needs it makes more sense to just fix the old bridge.

Now, there’s really no way that MnDOT is going to step away from this bridge at this point. Too much is invested, the governor wants it, it’s going to get built. The question is what happens next in the larger discussion of funding for transportation in general. If the public doesn’t support a major increase in funding, we could be looking at a bad cliff.

The number of roads with poor pavement is going to steadily increase. The number of problem bridges that we have — bridges that are considered functionally obsolete or structurally deficient —isn’t going to drop, it’s going to keep going up.

The life span of bridges is, like, 30-40 years, and all the bridges that were built in 70s, in the big rush of construction then— those are all coming due now. The problem of priorities that is represented by the big bridge will play out across the state, with many more projects —not at the size of the big bridge, but certainly in terms of the impact.

On the stakeholder ‘consensus’

If there’s one thing that stands out in the history of this project, it’s the single-mindedness of MnDOT to build the big bridge, no matter what stood in their way.

Looking back on it, the stakeholder process that MnDOT convened [from 2003 to 2006] wasn’t really designed to look at what would be the best bridge for the St. Croix River Valley, because MnDOT itself reserved to itself several of the most important decisions before the stakeholder process ever really began.

They defined the crossing as an inter-regional corridor, a designation designed to get them to the next step: We want freeway speeds. And if you want freeway speeds the only way of doing it is to go blufftop to blufftop, and that means you’ve gotta move down the river, and everything else sort of falls into place from there.

The stakeholders weren’t allowed to alter any of those assumptions, so instead of working on what would be the best bridge, we only ended up working on what would be the best big bridge.

On public cynicism

Gov. Dayton did not want to support a 5-cent gas-tax increase in this past session, because, first, he thought that Minnesotans wouldn’t support it, and two, it wasn’t enough. He and [MnDOT] Commissioner [Charles] Zelle are going to be going out to try to persuade the public that there is a need for a much bigger solution — funding on the order of 40 cents a gallon over the next 20 years.

The problem they’re going to run into is this whole notion of how much politics has pushed into planning for transportation. There’s a high level of distrust that if you give MnDOT more money, it would actually go to the right kinds of things.

One of the ways MnDOT has tried to deal with that issue is, they’ve come out with a state transportation plan, the latest of which says, these are our goals — and safety is one of them. They’re really into zero deaths on the roads.

But if you look at all those goals, and stand them up against  the big bridge, it violates all of them! And yet we’re going forward with it.

What is the public supposed to do with that? What do they think the public will do?

On slowing growth patterns

There’s a question of whether the assumptions that drove MnDOT to believe they needed to build the big bridge are still valid. All of the growth that they thought was going to happen in the Wisconsin counties and communities isn’t playing out.

Some of that you can see in population numbers, but you can also see it in the numbers of river crossings — the annual daily traffic counts on the existing bridge. In 2000, there were 16,300 daily crossings. By 2004, they were up to about 18,000. But since then it’s actually dropped. The latest numbers, for 2012, were 17,400. By the MnDOT models we should be at 19,200.

One thing MCEA figured out early on was that projections MnDOT was running with relied on population figures from the Wisconsin counties — but the counties had reached those figures by assuming the bridge was going to be built! So it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Wisconsin counties [the new bridge will serve] have the highest, or certainly close to the highest, rate of foreclosures for rural counties in Wisconsin. The city of New Richmond has dropped all of their permitting and development fees in order to attract developers.

With the shifts in demographics for this region, the kind of information you can get from the Met Council today, about where people are going to be living and how many actually going to want that kind of low-density residential development, we probably already have all of the infrastructure on the ground that we’re going to need to satisfy the need we’re going to see through 2040.

So there’s a real question of whether the big bridge will be a dinosaur the day it opens up.

And I think there’s some political calculation going on right now about all of that. Look at who was at the groundbreaking for the big bridge. Everybody was there from Wisconsin. Charlie Zelle had to be there for MnDOT. But Gov. Dayton was absent.

On giving up the fight

There’s a lot of fatigue on the part of groups that have been fighting it for so long. There are still discussions of one last litigation that could stop it, that somebody could run with to shut it down. But that’s grasping at hints of straw, not even straws.

And at a certain point you’re just too tired to try anymore. But sometimes out of despair comes the question of, OK, well, what can we do next?

In fighting the fight, you learn about all the rules that are in place that skew the decisions that are going to be made, and you get to the point where you say, OK, now I’m going to work on changing those rules.

I think we’ve reached that point with the St. Croix bridge. We know it’s going to get built, but now we’ve got to try and figure out what could change that could prevent that kind of thing from happening again.

The whole way we try to model out regional transportation needs still uses the same four-step travel demand model that’s been around forever. Other regions have gone off to more integrated land-use and transportation models, but we continue to kick that old one down the road, and it keeps giving us the same solution to everything: Go out and build something big.

Problem is, there isn’t the money to build all those big things.

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Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/06/2013 - 10:44 am.

    Data, it’s not just for breakfast anymore

    The reason MnDoT classified TH 36 as a regional connector is because the traffic counts put it in that category. Here’s a link to a consultants report on the subject from 1999 for further information:

    As for the repeated yet unsubstantiated claims about the feasibility of a lower, slower, cheaper, etc. bridge, those alternatives were indeed evaluated, including building no bridge at all. They didn’t work, mostly because of the very difficult road geometry of trying to fit a major bridge along either the bluffs immediately south of Stillwater or in historic downtown Stillwater itself. That’s what influenced the decision of where to site the bridge more than anything else.

    As for this never happening again, well, that’s a no-brainer. What happened is that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act failed when it came to the National Park Service defining scenic impacts, when a federal judge in 2010 ruled that the NPS was being arbitrary and capricious when it flip-flopped after saying in 1996 that the bridge had a negative scenic impact and 2006 when it said it didn’t. When the judge asked for what objective criteria were followed about making said scenic judgments and the NPS couldn’t provide it, the judge properly ruled the NPS was at fault. At that point the NPS had fundamentally undermined the entire Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was what made it necessary for Congress to pass an act to finally resolve the issue.

    I do get sort of weary of hearing arguments about sprawl when things like the new six-lane Hwy 169 bridge in Bloomington are built to replace the old two-lane Bloomington Ferry bridge. Making the new Stillwater bridge the shining star of sprawl is just so much name-calling when you can hear a pin drop about the impact of other transportation projects. Or talking about how zoning laws in Washington County that keep much closer land to downtown St. Paul as hobby farm habitat go unquestioned. So I’m fairly convinced that opposition to the new Stillwater bridge is just axe-grinding for the sake of axe-grinding.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/06/2013 - 12:19 pm.

      Well said.

      I’d add that the reasons for slow growth on the Wisconsin side likely include the overall economic slowdown (now ending in the housing industry) and a wait for the bridge to be built so as to increase the number of prospective buyers. When we’ve built it, they will come.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/06/2013 - 01:43 pm.

      Ignoring the issue of sprawl is misguided

      At best. The latest population figures show that people are moving back into Mpls and St Paul and the inner suburbs for many sensible and smart reasons. That is an encouraging fact. MN has far too many paved roads in many rural areas which probably accommodate less than 50 to 100 vehicles a day. There is not enough money to repair all the present bridges and roads which already exist. You mention the 169 bridge in Bloomington – at least that road leads to other important MN towns like Shakopee and Mankato. The Stillwater bridge benefits western Wisconsin, and Wisconsin pays less for the bridge. People building homes in WI does not benefit MN from a property tax standpoint even if they work in MN.

      • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/06/2013 - 02:02 pm.

        Property taxes

        pay for local services like police, fire, schools, neighborhood streets, etc. So there’s no fairness issues for Minnesotans with respect to property taxes that are paid in Wisconsin. If anything, the fact that you have people living in Wisconsin and paying income taxes to Minnesota is a net benefit to other Minnesota taxpayers.

        • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/06/2013 - 03:52 pm.

          Far fairer for MN if they live and work in MN

          So they pay for local services as you call them in MN, including upkeep of county and city roads that they probably use in MN after crossing the bridge. Also as I recall they would pay income tax to both states proportionally.

          • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/07/2013 - 08:08 am.

            State and county roads

            are primarily funded by fuel tax revenues, while local streets are paid for primarily with property taxes. As for property taxes, it’s not true that they’re proportional – you do in fact pay in full to the state you work in, as each state give a credit for income taxes paid in other states.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/06/2013 - 12:22 pm.

    Typical MNDOT planning

    I’ve seen this before. The Highway 55 Minnehaha corridor and reroute were perfect examples. MNDOT drives the conclusions by limiting the scope of planning and public involvement. They claim to have exhausted all the alternatives but on close examination that turns out be circular reasoning supported by predetermined objectives. For instance with the Hiawatha reroute MNDOT claimed to have examined 144 different alternatives when in fact there were only 6 design options, non of which included improving the existing corridor. Once the decision’s been made the project becomes a juggernaut that’s impervious to interference. If you at the various studies used to support these giant projects you almost invariably find serious methodological errors but once the studies done they become weapons to drive the program rather than instruments of good policy decisions.

    All you need do with this bridge is ask a simple question, why? What problem are solving with this project? Hiawatha was supposed to shorten driving time between downtown and the airport and decrease accidents. It longer to get the airport now, and the number of accidents has actually increased. This was predictable and was predicted, but MNDOT would hear none of it.

  3. Submitted by John Ferman on 06/06/2013 - 12:34 pm.

    Stillwater Bridge – The Future

    While current traffic growth later might show lowered numbers, remember those are for the current bridge. After the new bridge opens and people begin to discover it, I predict the traffic numbers will start increasing. The new bridge will present more options for long distant trips. Compare your current options for going to Green Bay – now add a new option. Once the bridge opens near river Wisconsin counties will discover that housing and business opportunities will open. These knds of arguments lead me to predict that everyone will deplore why the bridge was not designed for at least 6 lanes.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 06/07/2013 - 07:29 am.

      Induced Demand

      What you’re describing is induced demand and it’s a poor way to do planning. We’re not magically creating new commuters here, simply shifting them from one place to another. The fact that there are two crossings near this bridge should have immediately put a stop to this nonsense.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/06/2013 - 01:21 pm.

    breakfast, eh?

    I’ve only been here a few years, have never been to Stillwater, and there’s a good chance I’ll never use this new bridge while I’m helping to pay for the state’s $300 million+ share of construction costs. I don’t have much of an axe to grind.

    Based on photos and plenty of other articles I’ve seen and read, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Clark about a different (as in lower, slower, cheaper, etc.) bridge, even though that different bridge is the one I’d be inclined to favor for this location. Geometry and physics can’t be ignored if the stated goal of any highway policy is the oft-used mantra of “safety,” especially when it’s combined with “freeway speeds.”

    That Mr. Clark is weary of hearing arguments about sprawl connected with the new Stillwater bridge doesn’t negate the validity of those arguments. It merely means he finds them annoyingly inconvenient. The data that isn’t just for breakfast any more also suggests that traffic volume in this particular corridor only marginally supports the necessity of a new bridge at all, of any kind, much less the freeway-style structure that will apparently be built. Were the existing lift bridge in fine working condition, the whole discussion might be moot.

    The Bloomington bridge for Highway 169 may be just as bad as the Stillwater proposal, but the focus of this article is the Stillwater bridge. Perhaps the Bloomington bridge is deserving of its own, equally critical, article. As a relatively new resident, my objection to a $600 million bridge, not least being the staggering cost, is that there’s a perfectly usable (and if necessary, expandable) bridge location 6 miles to the south, and it already has a perfectly usable (and high-speed) interstate bridge. I don’t know if the new Stillwater bridge will be a dinosaur the day it opens, but long before it opens it will qualify for another title that’s often used: boondoggle. No corporate executive hoping to hang on to his golden parachute would advocate building a new and very expensive distribution center/warehouse only 6 miles away from an existing facility that performed satisfactorily, had room for expansion, and would continue to operate after the new facility was built, and that’s especially the case when sales have been flat for the past few years.

    MnDOT is not unique among state transportation departments in falling victim to the cliche that, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. As is often the case in other states, the primary focus of MnDOT doesn’t appear to be “transportation” in the general sense. The focus appears to be rather strongly biased toward highways. New roads, especially new high-speed roads, *do* provide a means of transportation, but they’re certainly not the *only* worthwhile means of transportation deserving of public investment. In my section of Minneapolis, I’m surrounded by heavily-used highways that need, but won’t get, substantial maintenance, largely because we can’t afford it. How ironic, then, that we seem to be able to afford to build this new bridge, for which there’s only minimal justification in terms of traffic load, while heavily-used roads break down because we can’t afford to maintain them. And in the meantime, we don’t seem to be able to find much money at all for other modes of transportation not based upon the automobile.

    Civil engineers tell me 60% of the cost of any road, over the course of its useful life, is maintenance. We ought to be taking better care of the roads we already have before spending several hundred million to construct a few miles of new road, which will also have to be maintained. Minnesota citizens are helping to pay for a bridge that will be primarily used by a few thousand Wisconsin commuters, and the benefits of that bridge, even if new development proceeds as the most optimistic projections suggest, will accrue primarily to people living in a small part of western Wisconsin.

    No one at the NPS or MnDOT asked me, of course, but I don’t see a compelling case here for a new, freeway-style bridge as a replacement for the Stillwater lift bridge, no matter what the new bridge’s design parameters might be.

  5. Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/06/2013 - 02:20 pm.

    It’s not that the arguments are inconvenient

    it’s that they’re bogus. You don’t build a bridge with an expected life of 80 to 100 years with only the present in mind. It’s like saying that we could have replaced the Bloomington Ferry bridge with say, a three lane bridge with one reversible lane for morning and evening commutes instead of the six-lane bridge that was actually built. As it was, when MnDoT reconstructed said Hwy 169 south of I-494 they initially had stop lights at two major intersections that later had to be replaced with limited access interchanges because the lights caused major backups. Needless to say, that cost more money in the long run. It would even be more expensive to add more lanes to a bridge, so it makes sense to do it right the first time and build the capacity to meet future traffic demand.

    As for shifting traffic to the I-94 bridge at Hudson, all that does is increase congestion in that corridor, as was seen when the lift bridge was closed for three months last fall for major repairs and reconditioning. There is enough interstate traffic between Wisconsin and Minnesota to justify two major bridges already, especially since the only other interstate bridges are far away in Prescott and Osceola.

    • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 06/06/2013 - 03:24 pm.

      No sympathy for “congestion” complains

      What’s bogus is complains about congestion. How is any sensible person supposed to have sympathy for people who choose to drive from Wisconsin to work in the Twin Cities? Why are we subsidizing this sprawl? And why are we ignoring evidence that congestion is self-fullfilling anyhow, that by virtue of building another bridge, we’ll only add to the number of people who want to live on ten acres in Wisconsin and commute, thereby filling up this one, too.

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/06/2013 - 11:01 pm.


      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/09/2013 - 07:25 pm.

        The word is complaints

        We pay for people to take a commuter train from Elk River to Mpls. There is presently a plan to get a commuter train to Duluth from Mpls., but daily commuters will probably just come from Cambridge. We subsidize sprawl all the time, but at least this way, trucks can transport goods across the river unlike commuter trains.

        As the Strib points out in today’s (Sunday) paper, Wisconsin is supposedly a hellhole so the thought that people would move there seems rather silly doesn’t it? Surely, Minnesotans aren’t worried about people choosing to live in Wisconsin while working in Minnesota. Are they?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/06/2013 - 04:09 pm.

      Bogus arguments?

      Clark, dude, your whole point seems to be that future development will follow where the roads and bridges are built leading to increased usage. That doesn’t negate the sprawl argument, it duplicates it.

      • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/07/2013 - 08:14 am.

        The growth will happen regardless

        as can be seen by the fact that St. Croix County despite the great recession has grown in population. Take a drive sometime in St. Joseph township and you’ll find plenty of homes there. The cratering of the housing market did a number on home building everywhere and when it fully recovers St. Croix County will also see an uptick in housing starts.

        The only way to truly contain sprawl isn’t through infrastructure, but to enact strict growth controls that prevents any new housing outside the boundary. Portland has done this, so has Winnipeg. It could be done here in the Twin Cities, but frankly it’s not popular with most people and the political will isn’t there to pass such growth controls.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/07/2013 - 10:53 am.

          Now you’re being silly

          Tom, your trading in a duplication of the sprawl analysis for a circular argument i.e. : growth will happen because it’s inevitable. Growth is not inevitable for one thing for a variety of reasons, and growth in any particular location is certainly not inevitable, have you seen Detroit lately? Populations increase in some places, decrease in others, or simply remain more less constant. Predicting population in any specific location is a very complex problem.

          Sprawl theory critiques the nature of development and population distribution, it’s not bogus, it’s been confirmed by experience. Basically this bridge is predicated upon the notion of turning Eastern Wisconsin into a Twin Cities exoburb. I’m not going to duplicate the analysis of that, you can read the comments here. Suffice it to say that the economy has changed permanently, the housing bubble that sustained a lot of the sprawl developments has burst, and American attitudes about travel and transit are rapidly changing. High home prices in the cities have crashed making cheaper housing in the hinterlands less desirable. People used to trade their commute for more square feet but congestion, high gas prices, lover city houses prices, and lack of transit options have taken a huge bite out of that mentality. People are looking to live closer to the cities they work in for a variety of reasons.

          The new bridge is NOT being built to accommodate existing growth, that growth has stalled. Whether the bridge stimulates growth (sprawl) or not, it’s a bad public policy outcome. Sprawl, if it develops, is a waste of energy and resources. If sprawl fails to materialize, you’re left with a $600 bridge to nowhere. Either way, it’s a bad project, and waste of money. If you wanted commuters from Wisconsin to the Twin Cities it would have been cheaper to build a nice highway connecting them to the existing 94 bridge. It would also have been a more fair cost distribution since it would have been financed by the people most benefiting from the bridge, i.e. Wisconsinites.

          • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/07/2013 - 12:45 pm.

            Demographics aren’t destiny

            however I could make a good argument based on your logic that demands we pull the plug on projects like replacing the fallen I-35W bridge in Minneapolis or the Layfayette bridge in downtown St. Paul because urban cores are preordained to depopulate like Detroit’s core. The economy of the Twin Cities isn’t remotely that dire, even with the great recession we’re going through. Gas prices do affect commuting patterns, but people still can and do make tradeoffs when it comes to where they live, and don’t forget that commuters can do things like carpool, drive vehicles that get greater miles per gallon, or, heaven forbid, drive 55mph. (Even driving the speed limit these days still means you get passed by 95% of the other drivers on the road. So much for how important gasoline consumption really is for most.) Oh, and for falling city house prices, make sure what housing stock you’re talking about and the relative supply. Old bungalows in Frogtown might be cheap to buy, but often need expensive fixes, and there aren’t as many of them as you might suppose. And the housing density even in Minneapolis proper is still not nearly as dense as Chicago’s. Good luck trying to get three-story flats built though at the next community meeting in Linden Hills, I suggest you wear your bullet-proof tap dancing shoes when you stand up to address the crowd. Heck, even building a six-story apartment building in Dinkytown has the usual gang of NIMBYs up in arms, and that’s an area that’s a no-brainer for higher housing densities.

            As you can tell, the subject of sprawl is a lot more complicated than transportation infrastructure. Back in the late 1990s when Ginny Yingling of the Sierra Club took people on a tour of Woodbury as an example of urban sprawl, not apparently realizing that on a per-unit per acre basis Woodbury actually had a higher housing density than parts of Minneapolis. Such urban sprawl-porn is looking at things through a narrow POV and really doesn’t do anything about urban sprawl. Their time would be better spent going to local community meeting and supporting higher housing densities in their communities. I’ve been on a local planning and zoning board myself and went through meetings where someone wanted to add a granny apartment to their home and about fifteen neighbors showed up in opposition. That’s the sort of NIMBYism that’s pernicious and not so easy to point fingers and jeer at.

            So color me unimpressed about the impassioned cries about bridges and sprawl, because know it’s not justified by the reality of urban growth.

            • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 06/07/2013 - 03:47 pm.

              Comparison makes no sense

              That makes no sense – the bridges you try compare the exurban bridge to Wisconson for commuters who sprawl out fifty miles are literally *in* the cities, necessary to get between neighborhoods within Minneapolis and St. Paul or to connect people to existing inner-ring suburbs. How do they have anything to do with a bridge designed to promote growth and sprawl fifty miles away?

              Even if your fact about Woodbury is true (it’s pretty hard to believe – are you comparing the desnity of Woodbury to the density of Lake Calhoun?), it doesn’t change the fact that Woodbury has no industry, so people have to commute from there to the city – the defintion of sprawl.

              Also, the fact that increasing density has its NIMBY-related growing pains is no argument for doing it wrong.

              • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/07/2013 - 04:17 pm.

                I’m fine with bridges being built in Minneapolis and St. Paul

                it’s the claim that because Detroit has lost population that we shouldn’t build a new bridge at Stillwater that I’m poking fun at.

                About Woodbury, it’s true that housing lots there are kept small with more public space (parks, trails, open space) made available in return. It’s a good idea and does increase overall housing density.

                Oh, and I’m all for not letting NIMBYism get out of hand. I just wish folks here would see that there’s more than bridges to consider when it comes to sprawl.

                • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/08/2013 - 10:23 am.

                  Being silly part II


                  I didn’t say the bridge shouldn’t be built because Detroit has lost population. I said Detroit demonstrates that your prediction that population always increases is a fallacy. Therefore a rationale for building a bridge based on the assumption that population growth in that area is inevitable, is rationale based on a fallacy. One may be able to predict population changes in a given area, but accurate predictions are never based on fallacies. Public policy based on fallacy rarely ends well.

                  Sure, you may find a that town home complex in Woodbury has denser population than say the Kenwood are of MPLS, but doesn’t negate the existence of sprawl, and it doesn’t establish Woodbury as a higher density city than MPLS. Sprawl isn’t just about density anyways.

                  The bridge comparisons your making are ridiculous.

                  NIMBY doesn’t really apply here, we’re not building the Stillwater bridge next to Stillwater because no one wants it in St. Paul.

                  I get the impression actually that some critics of sprawl analysis don’t really understand the concept of sprawl. Sprawl analysis is neither reductionist or simplistic.

                  • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/10/2013 - 10:54 am.



                    The notion that population always increases is a fallacy, as any cursory study of thousands of small farm towns in the midwest shows. That hasn’t been the case in St. Croix County, thanks to how close it is to the core of the Twin Cities. You’re looking at only one factor, gasoline prices, but that’s hardly the only one that affects population growth, and as I said there are actions such as commuters carpooling and buying vehicles with higher MPGs that can offset that. You’re the one banging the drum of “if they don’t build it they won’t come”, but over the past thirty years St. Croix’s population has grown, even during the great recession and with higher gasoline prices. It’s your take on urban sprawl that’s simplistic, not mine.

                    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/10/2013 - 01:01 pm.

                      Maybe you missed my comment?


                      “…I’m not going to duplicate the analysis of that, you can read the comments here. Suffice it to say that the economy has changed permanently, the housing bubble that sustained a lot of the sprawl developments has burst, and American attitudes about travel and transit are rapidly changing. High home prices in the cities have crashed making cheaper housing in the hinterlands less desirable. People used to trade their commute for more square feet but congestion, high gas prices, lover city houses prices, and lack of transit options have taken a huge bite out of that mentality. People are looking to live closer to the cities they work in for a variety of reasons.”

                      As you can see, “gas prices” are but one of several factors we’re taking into account here.

                      Marlys over on City Scape has a column this week that looks at the changes in the Twin Cities housing market. If she’s right, it’s even less reason to suppose that we can turn St. Croix county WI into an exoburb of the Twin Cities:

                    • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/10/2013 - 02:53 pm.

                      No comment was missed

                      but you’re missing the fact that housing prices fell drastically across the board, and that housing units are still priced lower for comparable units the farther you get from the urban core. The basic tradeoff still hasn’t changed when it comes to housing, at least not yet. It may change when the Twin Cities are willing to be as densely populated as Chicago, and that’s not happening yet, and only will when there’s the political consensus to draw a very hard and firm growth boundary that forbids development beyond it. I’m not sure the Twin Cities can marshal that sort of will, given a majority of voters probably won’t agree to it.

                      As for the article you linked to, while the boomer generation will have an outsized impact on the housing market, they’re not a game changer with respect to the housing market. A more important factor is the minor trend of fewer families wanting to spend the time it takes to maintain a single-family detached home. That doesn’t mean there will be an urban implosion happening anytime soon, and that there will still be a need for more single-family detached housing stock as the overall metro area population grows. Some of that housing will be built in St. Croix County because it is closer to the metro core than available land in Dakota and Chisago County.

                    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/11/2013 - 11:12 am.

                      Not so silly

                      Tom says:

                      “but you’re missing the fact that housing prices fell drastically across the board, and that housing units are still priced lower for comparable units the farther you get from the urban core. The basic tradeoff still hasn’t changed when it comes to housing, at least not yet”

                      No one has forgotten that housing prices fell across the board, that doesn’t change the fact that urban housing is cheaper than it used be, and therefore more attractive than it used to be. No one expects the trade-off to change, we’re just observing the fact that fewer people are interested in that trade-off. Housing isn’t just about getting as much square footage as you can for the buck anymore. We’re building higher density housing all over the cities and inner ring suburbs and it’s filling up. Sure, maybe you can get more house for the buck in St. Croix Co…, but you’re in St. Croix Co.

                      Time will tell what actually happens, but either way this is a bad idea. Whether it sits there underused, or encourages sprawl, it’s bad policy. What good for the bridge isn’t necessarily good for policy.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/06/2013 - 02:31 pm.

    Four-step travel demand model

    I was hoping this article might shed some more light on the ways we select highway or public improvement projects. That may be outside the scope of an article on Minnpost. My understanding is that highway or transportation projects are “scored” and then selected on the basis of levels of priority and available funding. The flaws in this system have been pointed out in Mr. Erkel’s comments and the comments above. Apparently, these flaws lead to the decision to proceed with the bridge to become a political decision.

    Whether it becomes a dinosaur or not, the Stillwater bridge will certainly test the hypothesis of MCEA and others, that these infrastructure projects, designed and built on the basis of narrow and pre-ordained assumptions, become self-fulfilling. In other words, they create their own demand. It should be obvious that we are caught in a trap where the demand for cars, gasoline and oil and highways in our country have become so interdependent, that demand for one leads to increased demand for another, which increases demand for more highways, which leads to increased demands for more oil, etc. If we do not find it within ourselves to agree upon and adopt a different way that leads out of this trap, we will doom ourselves and our civilization to extinction within a relatively few years.

  7. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/06/2013 - 02:38 pm.

    If the Stillwater Bridge Turns Out to Be Massively Underutilized

    Which is likely to be the case, especially since development on the Wisconsin side will fall prey to a series of massive boondoggles, mortgage ripoffs, very poor quality highway construction, substandard housing which falls apart after ten years, and a fight between legislators to see who can pad their own pockets in the development process,…

    all the result of the miracles Gov. Walker and the Republicans are working across the St. Croix River,…

    it will be the PERFECT legacy to Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s time representing Minnesota’s 6th District,…

    when the only thing she ever did for the 6th turns out to be massively overpriced and essentially useless.

    Who could have predicted that this would be the case?

  8. Submitted by William Lindeke on 06/06/2013 - 03:27 pm.

    Per capita VMT is declining

    It has been since 2004, well before the ’08 economy and the gas price spike.

  9. Submitted by John DeWitt on 06/06/2013 - 05:30 pm.

    Maximizing VMT

    Back in 1998, I was able to sit in on a workshop “Transportation Planning for MPOs”. The instructors, from Rutgers, began by explaining that “For all practical purposes, transportation planning in this country is just about maximizing vehicle miles traveled.” Knowing that has helped me understand many of the decisions being made. Repairing all of the structurally deficient bridges in Minnesota will do little to increase VMT. But a new St. Croix crossing will enable and encourage many lengthy commutes from western Wisconsin to the Twin Cities thus helping to maximize VMT.

  10. Submitted by John Helland on 06/07/2013 - 12:12 am.


    Jim Erkel is a Minnesota treasure and thoughtful as can be!

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