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Stillwater bridge cost can be measured not only in millions but in lost lives

A transportation expert points to projects that still await funding, despite many fatalities and injuries.

MnDOT decided to move forward with this $630 million to $690 million project, the most expensive bridge project in the history of Minnesota, to relieve perceived congestion — congestion that will be pushed by the population growth in western Wisconsin that the bridge itself will encourage.
Courtesy of MnDOT

First of two parts.

Late last week, with the Stillwater bridge in the headlines  again — a symbolic groundbreaking, amid fresh disputes over bids and contracts — I had a long talk with Jim Erkel about a different way of pricing Minnesota’s most expensive bridge project.

erkel portrait
Jim Erkel

Erkel is a lawyer and transportation expert who for the last dozen years has directed the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy program on land use and transportation.

In that role, he has registered MCEA’s consistent opposition to what he calls “the Big Bad Bridge” — a freeway-scale, highway-speed, blufftop-to-blufftop span downstream from Stillwater, and the option consistently favored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. MCEA is among the groups that unsuccessfully pressed for a smaller, lower, slower — and cheaper — bridge nearer the existing lift bridge.

But Erkel has also been involved more broadly and deeply in statewide transportation planning and policy issues than most of his allies in the bridge fight. So when I heard that he had been accumulating information on projects that may have been pushed aside by the Stillwater project — despite alarming patterns of accidents and fatalities — I was curious to hear more.

Erkel argues that safety-related improvements on three particular stretches of highway  should be near the top of the state’s priority list for roadbuilding. He also thinks it likely, but admits he can’t prove, that some of this work had been in line for funding under a MnDOT proposal to shift $620 million into a “Better Roads for Minnesota” program in fiscal years 2012-2015 — until Gov. Mark Dayton moved the Stillwater project back into the queue.

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Emails between Erkel and MnDOT show that $263 million in Better Roads funding had been “programmed” for the Stillwater bridge project until the spring of 2011. But after the National Park Service rejected the MnDOT design, the money was reallocated — briefly — to the Better Roads program.

Then came what Erkel calls Dayton’s “massive flip-flop.” The governor had called for a fresh look at alternative bridge designs and spoken favorably of the smaller-scale approach.

But in what looked like a snap decision, during a March 18 site visit with Rep. Michele Bachmann, he declared support for the rejected design and her efforts to override the Park Service via special legislation. He was soon joined in that position by Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and Congress removed the last legal obstacle to the MnDOT design.

Excerpts from our conversation follow, beginning with Erkel’s account of Dayton’s position change and the political currents preceding it.

Jim Erkel: The Clinton administration had offered a fairly strong defense of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but then the Bush administration had signaled that, oh, anything would be OK.

By early 2011, though, not only had the Obama administration taken office, but Gov. Dayton had been elected as well. The Sierra Club had renewed its challenge in court, and won, and then the National Park Service reached its determination that the bridge being proposed was inconsistent with the scenic riverway — which I think shocked MnDOT.

All in all, it looked like things were pretty much lined up in a way that we could make the case for a different design.

In February the governor, in response to the Park Service’s determination, said, I think we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and find a new solution. That was a good result. Meanwhile, the governor was in the process of coming up with an initiative of his own that ended up being called “Better Roads for Minnesota” and he was going to be taking a bunch of money that had been sitting around and using it on a number of projects around the state.

Then the governor is invited out to visit the old bridge by Rep. Bachmann. He goes out, he takes a look at it, and while he’s standing there, says, well, we’ve got to build the big bridge, because there’s no other alternative.

We’ve talked with people at MnDOT who said they had no idea he was going to do that when he went out there. Just a day or two earlier, a representative of MnDOT told the Transportation Advisory Board that they had already made decisions to reallocate the money for the Stillwater Bridge to these other projects. And we have obtained some drafts showing how the money was going to be sent around to various MnDOT districts.

We don’t have anything that shows exactly what the projects were going to be, but in some of those districts it’s pretty evident what they were going to spend the money on— and clearly MnDOT was already in the process of reallocating that money when the governor made his massive flip-flop out in Stillwater.

Everything that followed, from what we heard, created a lot of tension between the governor and then [MnDOT] Commissioner Tom Sorel, which probably led to the commissioner moving on.

And so, now, they’re in the process of letting contracts and beginning the work on building the most expensive bridge in the history of the state of Minnesota.

MinnPost: Six miles upstream from a perfectly good freeway bridge already in place.

JE: Yes.

MP: It’s evident that you’ve been tracking other needed highway projects for some time. How does that line up with your involvement on the bridge —which came first?

JE: I probably was thinking about the connections  during the stakeholder process [that MnDOT convened in 2003-2006 in hopes of creating consensus on the Stillwater project], but in directing MCEA’s land use and transportation program since 2001 I’ve also been engaged in transportation planning at the regional level with the Metropolitan Council and tracking what MnDOT was doing through its state transportation and investment plans.

And with that, I began to see that there were lots of needs around the state that were not being met and it was a problem of funding. If you’re in a fiscally constrained position but you have lots of needs, you have to identify what your priorities are and fund the most important priorities and  then work your way down. And those decisions will reflect what you think is most important.

The Hwy. 52 corridor between the Twin Cities and Rochester, if you’re interested in inter-regional corridors that have some benefit for state economic growth, would seem to be more important — and the problems of that corridor should have more priority — than others.

U.S. Hwy. 14 corridor has had a coalition of local officials trying to improve safety on that road for a long time. More recently, we know of deaths on U.S. Hwy. 10 up through Anoka, and there are coalitions there trying to improve on safety as well.

If you look at the Stillwater bridge, the Dayton administration came into office and sort of was handed this problem that had been sitting around, stewing, for a good 20 years, and the National Park Service gave them the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and take a second look.

And instead they decided to move forward with this $630 million to $690 million project, the most expensive bridge project in the history of Minnesota, to relieve perceived congestion — congestion that will be pushed by the population growth in western Wisconsin that the bridge itself will encourage.

So we seem to be placing more emphasis and priority on slightly reducing the commuting time of some Wisconsin residents — the estimate is, like, an additional 15,000 residents — than on the health and safety of Minnesotans in these corridors that are regularly killing people.

MP: What brings these three to the top of the list for you?

JE: Along U.S. Hwy. 10, in Anoka, pedestrians have been getting picked off and killed. It’s a design problem, and it should be fixed, and Anoka County officials say they have a plan for fixing those problems, but it would cost $300 million. That’s less than Minnesota’s share of the Big Bad Bridge, which is $350 million to $380 million.

[If the smaller bridge were built, Erkel said, the cost would be in the range of $263 million to $283 million, with Minnesota’s share between $130 million and $156 million.]

You can make the same point on U.S. Hwy. 52. There’s a notorious intersection with Goodhue County Road 9, which in September 2010, in less than a week, had two serious accidents that killed three people.

Just earlier this month, May 9, a resident of Northfield was killed at exactly the same intersection in exactly the same way. It would cost maybe $10 million to $20 million to build a new interchange. MnDOT spokesmen say they don’t have the money, but they do — they’re just spending it someplace else.

Hwy. 14, same thing. This is a stretch of road that has been regularly lethal, and there are fixes that have been identified, but they’re unfunded. [Erkel provided a clipping from the Mankato Free Press report indicating it would cost $465 million to widen, from two lanes to four, 37 miles of Hwy. 14 where the fatality rate is double the statewide average for two-lane roads.]

The governor went down to Mankato to talk to a big group and he assumed they’d all be opposed to a higher gas tax. When he asked who’d be willing to pay more in gas tax to solve these problems, most of the room raised their hands.

Then he started carping about the interim solution MnDOT had come up with for Hwy. 14, to use orange pylons to make drivers understand where they needed to go, and not mix traffic in some places, and he dismissed that as less than a half measure.

And it is a half measure, but it’s all they can afford. And it’s all they can afford because they’re spending money on other things.

MP: Tell me if this is going too far, but it sounds to me as if you’re saying the cost of the new bridge can be measured not only in millions but in lives.

JE: Yes. That’s exactly right.

And if I were in charge, I would change the name of the bridge. It wouldn’t be the St. Croix River Crossing, or whatever, it would be the Sharon Gates-Hull Memorial Bridge.

Ms. Hull is the woman who was killed May 9 on U.S. Hwy. 52, at the intersection with Goodhue County Road 9. She’s the fourth person to die there since 2010. It’s because the money that could have gone to that fix was spent someplace else.

And if you’re looking at where that money has gone, you don’t have to look any further than the new St. Croix crossing.

Thursday: Lessons from the Stillwater bridge fight.