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

Population and traffic figures haven’t kept pace with models used to justify the project.

"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."
Courtesy of MnDOT

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.

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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.