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

Courtesy of MnDOT
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.

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.

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.

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/04/2013 - 10:02 am.

    More than a little irony

    There’s more than a little irony in Mrs. Bachmann’s sole Congressional legislative accomplishment being a bridge that will primarily benefit citizens of Wisconsin.

    Mr. Erkel seems right on target to me, especially in the matter of priority-setting. When your resources are limited, where and how you spend those resources pretty much tells everyone who cares to look what your priorities are. The headline for this article seems, sadly, quite accurate.

  2. Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/04/2013 - 10:45 am.

    More water under the bridge

    It’s kinda sad to see this subject once again being dredged up as if the zombie points being raised here haven’t been previously addressed. Governor Dayton never did a u-turn on the bridge. Rather, it was the National Park Service that did a u-turn in 2010 when it rejected the bridge it had approved after the 2003-2006 process had run its course. Dayton merely recognized that the federal agencies involved could not agree on a new bridge, and eventually it took an act of Congress to break the impasse at the federal level. Here’s what Dayton actually said, taken from a report in the Star Tribune in February of 2011:

    “The situation remains the same as it did when I became U.S. senator 10 years ago,” Dayton said on Thursday. “Three federal agencies, all claiming jurisdiction, cannot agree on how Minnesota and Wisconsin can proceed. At this point, all possibilities have been reopened for consideration.”

    That’s not a statement saying anything about supporting any particular bridge design or putting Dayton on the side of those favoring a smaller bridge, so let’s please drop the claim that Dayton somehow flip-flopped. (Of course, when the Star Tribune itself mischaracterizes what Dayton said in it’s headline “Dayton does U-turn on St. Croix bridge”, I guess that gets lost in translation.)

    As for people dying, it’s pretty vile to make that argument against the bridge since there will always be safety needs that aren’t met that can be waved like the proverbial bloody shirt. The fact is that the eighty year old lift bridge has long since needed replacing and it was also clear that it was not feasible to build a larger bridge right in downtown Stillwater. The 2003-2006 process went over several alternatives and in the end the consensus was to go with the bridge that is now going to be built. Waiting longer wasn’t going to make the problem any less pressing or any cheaper. Yes, it’s expensive but that’s because the new bridge is designed to satisfy both recreational and scenic demands that all parties to the process wanted met. Claims that a cheaper bridge would work don’t pass the smell test given how the process did in fact look at alternatives that were judged to be unsatisfactory both in terms of scenic impacts and traffic volume.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 06/04/2013 - 12:11 pm.

      Tom, I’ve been kind of a broken record on this, but

      The fact is not “that the eighty year old lift bridge has long since needed replacing.” The fact is that the eighty year old lift bridge has long since needed closing. Huge difference that has been elided over and over and over. Close the bridge and then make the case for a $1B expenditure to make the commute shorter for a few folks who chose to arrange their daily lives on both sides of a major river. The two are independent.

      • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/04/2013 - 01:21 pm.

        Turnabout being fair play and all, Chuck

        Feel free the next time you’re driving to Chicago to go by way of Des Moines. It does cost us cheeseheads money to maintain that freeway called I-94, but at least we haven’t made it a tollway like they have in Illinois. Yet.

        • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 06/04/2013 - 03:25 pm.

          Honestly not sure what your analogy is.

          This isn’t about Wisconsin vs Minnesota, it’s about benefit-cost and about what expectations are entitled to protection at what public cost. (Though I’ve never driven on I-94 to Chicago or indeed much past Hudson. I try to stay out of the car.)

          • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/04/2013 - 03:56 pm.

            It’s not an analogy

            I’m pointing out how you directly benefit from public infrastructure maintained by others. If you’d prefer to pay more for for goods shipped here by truck via Iowa, I’m sure the additional cost to you would be worth it to the taxpayers of Wisconsin.

            As for the high cost of the bridge, as I’ve said it is due to having to meet both environmental and scenic demands that no other bridge to my knowledge has ever had to meet. There is also a need for a crossing at Stillwater that will shorten travel times for a growing population on both sides of the St. Croix River. Expecting people to divert for miles to either the bridge at Osceola or at Hudson imposes costs that over decades adds up also.

            • Submitted by Sean Fahey on 06/04/2013 - 04:52 pm.


              Who’s going to be shipping goods across the Stillwater bridge, who wouldn’t already be using the 94 crossing? Is there some kind of giant Northwoods industrial city churning out goods that the rest of us don’t know about?

              As far as commuters go, why is MN and the rest of the country funding people to live across the border and not even pay our state income tax. You can pay for the extra 14 miles round-trip yourself, or live closer to where you’re going every day.

            • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/04/2013 - 05:32 pm.

              See above Tom

              Nothing to do about the Stillwater bridge – an undeserved gift to the cheap state of Koch Bros.

        • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/04/2013 - 04:57 pm.

          Oh is this new 700000 million dollar bridge

          Going to get Minnesotans to Chicago quicker? BTW I would pay tolls to improve I-94 thru WI since there is little chance that your governor cheap will fix anything unless the Koch brothers allow it. See his silly refusal to accept money for high speed rail service to Chicago.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/04/2013 - 10:45 am.

    A few holes need plugging

    in the claim that diversion of funds to the Stillwater bridge has cost lives. The article appears to indicate that funds for the Stillwater bridge might have moved into another program for FY 2012-2015 but for Dayton’s decision. Unless Mr. Erkel can demonstrate that these funds would have been spent to improve the U.S. Hwy. 52 intersection with Goodhue County Road 9, that the improvements would have been completed by May 9, and that condition of the intersection caused or contributed to the death of Ms. Hull, his premise fails. His failure to make these links is consistent with the statement that “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.”

    What we appear to have here is yet another case of over-reach, not unlike that routinely indulged in by Minnesota’s favorite Congresswoman.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/04/2013 - 03:35 pm.

      Any one of those three projects SHOULD have been funded

      Before this huge bridge to the hinterland of western Wisconsin. Those other 3 projects would have benefitted primarily MN citizens.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 06/04/2013 - 10:54 am.


    The political actions that made this monstrosity happen only underscore the fact that even liberal politicians do not understand the most basic princinples behind sprawl and its effects. With that being the case, the situation seems more or less hopeless that we will begin making intelligent urban design and transportation decisions any time in the near future.

  5. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/04/2013 - 11:17 am.

    Well without Ms. Bachman for comic relief we

    now have Mr. Erkle. This story is a waste of time and bytes. For most of the reasons other posters mentioned. Talk about beating a dead horse. The bridge is going in get over it move on.

    You would think that sooner or later someone would look at a map and see that the closest 94 and 36 get is in the twin cities and then they go very different directions on each side of it.

    Mr. Klein keeps beating the “sprawl” bandwagon which I think makes him stuck in the 70’s.

    Both you and Mr. Erkle need a new tune to be relevant.

    Feel free to kill this series.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/04/2013 - 05:26 pm.

      Back at you Jody

      All should end any comments about the Vikings stadium and its cost. Both are a stupid waste of public dollars. The I-35 W bridge cost 1/3. A bad deal for MN. On your way to WI.

  6. Submitted by ralph larson on 06/04/2013 - 03:30 pm.

    stillwater bridge

    Here’s an E-mail that I sent to every official and legislator that I could find two years ago. No one could provide me with relevant information. I hope that Mr. Erkle can, but I doubt it.

    I have lived in Bayport for more than 30 years and am well aware of the problems the traffic causes in downtown Stillwater where the congestion and pollution are objectionable. Probably the worse problem is caused by those who drive through residential sections to circumvent the backed-up traffic on highway 36/95 at the bridge. The real problem is not the bridge, the problem is Stillwater. Driving through Stillwater it is obvious that the main cause of congestion are the various stop lights and sharp turns at the bridge.

    With only 9,000 vehicles per day it is easy to figure that a two-lane bridge unobstructed at each end could carry the traffic and there would be no problem!! If for example, if the traffic moved slowly at 30 mph with a distance between cars of 50 feet, the bridge could handle 3000 cars per hour. There might be a little slow-down during rush hour, during the periods that Andersen Windows has shift changes as many employees live in Wisconsin, or during the boating season when the lift bridge is raised during non-rush hours.

    The need for a four lane $700,000,000 bridge at Stillwater is hard to justify. The bridge primarily serves commuters from St. Croix County because Wisconsin east of this county is very sparsely populated. The major cities serviced by the bridge are Holton, Hudson, Somerset, New Richmond and Boomer. These cities have a population of 30,000 people while the population of St.Croix County is 85,000 in the incorporated areas. Looking at these numbers, it is hard to see how these few people would need such a big bridge. The prospect for St. Croix County to grow substantially is slim. In fact last year, the total bridge count dropped from 18,000 to 17,000 perhaps caused by the employment situation/economy.

    At the expense of sounding heretical, I would propose that a similar lift bridge be constructed about a half-mile south of current site. With no obstructions it could handle the traffic very far into the future. Ralph H. Larson

    I would like to know if a demographic study of St. Croix County future growth has been done to justify a $700mm bridge.

  7. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/04/2013 - 05:57 pm.

    Stillwater Bridge Boondoggle

    I agree with Mr. Erkel and the other commenters that the Stillwater Bridge is an unnecessary and costly boondoggle. I particularly agree that this bridge and the associated “highway improvements” to Hwy. 36 will only be justified by carrying the traffic it will generate to western Wisconsin. It certainly can not be justified as a solution to the traffic congestion in Stillwater and Bayport. I agree with the writers who identify the far less costly alternatives that existed there. While it’s a done deal so we must move on, I for one will never tire of hearing what a mistake it was and the new problems it will inevitably create.

  8. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/04/2013 - 09:17 pm.

    But we need trains

    To bring people from Elk River to Mpls., some western suburbs, some southern suburbs, etc. No complaints about causing sprawl there or millions of dollars to transport a few people to work each day. If the $300 million project on Highway 10 were to be implemented, people would still die crossing the highway where they weren’t supposed to because most won’t walk to the single crossing spot where they were supposed to cross.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2013 - 09:00 am.

    Erkle has a legitimate point.

    The day you stop analyzing public policy decisions is the day you stop learning from experience. It appears champions of ignorance and bad policy like to complain about even having such discussions. I suggest they read something else if they’re not interested, it’s not like anyone was tricked into reading this article by a misleading title.

    Some policy decisions kill people, that’s a fact, and we have a moral obligation to examine those policy decisions. Erkle is simply pointing out that we COULD have saved some lives and choose not to. Instead we’re building the most expensive bridge in MN history for no good reason.

    Something had to be done? Sure, the biggest complaint was Stillwater congestion. The simplest and cheapest solution would have been to close the bridge to all but pedestrian and bike traffic.

    Stillwater will rue the day this bridge is completed. It will destroy the scenic view, which is the only reason to go Stillwater, and it will dry up the town. Experience with by-passed towns is nothing new, here we have a town that actually wants to be by-passed? OK, we’ll see how that works out for you.

    This is exactly the wrong project in the wrong place at the wrong time. At a time when sprawl is costing us millions and we’re trying to build more sustainable transportation systems and adjust for density, we’re spawling out to another state. At a time when transit is growing because of permanently high gas prices, we’re building a giant bridge to nowhere to accommodate traffic that could cross the river on an existing freeway bridge. We’re plopping this monstrosity right in the middle of one the most scenic areas in MN.

    Some may want to “move on” and pretend this boondoggle isn’t happening but I remind you, you live in a democracy where public policy is subject to debate.

  10. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/05/2013 - 01:21 pm.

    I realize that facts simply get in the way, but

    what the hey:

    Bridge = $280 million to $310 million
    Total project = $580 million to $676 million

    MnDOT is the lead agency on this project and is coordinating and sharing costs with WisDOT. Here’s how the costs break down:
    Minnesota approach roads are paid for by Minnesota
    Wisconsin approach roads are paid for by Wisconsin
    Bridge, historic and environmental remediation and project development are split evenly between the states

    The current total project cost estimate range is from $571 million to $676 million and includes construction, right of way, environmental protection and remediation, contingency, bonds and insurance, engineering and management, etc.

    These cost estimates are based on a total project cost estimates, which adds in all ancillary expenses. Traditionally, only construction costs are reported when referring to project costs. The total project cost estimate provides a more accurate, and larger, view of the total cost; view the total cost estimate chart (PDF, 1 MB) for more details.

  11. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/05/2013 - 08:35 pm.


    Mr. Erkel sounds like a desperate man trying in vain to justify his backward thinking (the death argument!)

    Of course, he could just be an obstructionist.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 06/06/2013 - 09:24 am.

      Mr. Erkel’s argument is obvious.

      Transportation funds are prioritized based on criteria. A chief one is safety. When hundreds of millions are diverted from prioritized projects to a bridge with no safety purpose, safety issues that would have been met are not. It is a statistical argument, not a causal one. And it is far from the only argument against this huge waste of your dollars and mine. Or do you just favor tax & spend for its own sake?

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/06/2013 - 08:20 am.

    Backward thinking?

    Only if you assume no one else is going to be killed by the poor designs Erkle’s talking about… ever. Erkel isn’t the one thinking backwards, he’s talking about preventing future fatalities, not bemoaning lives already lost.

    Backward thinking is the assumption that all new roads and bridges are “progress”. That kind of thinking hails back to the 19th century.

  13. Submitted by Richard Bonde on 06/07/2013 - 10:30 am.

    Stillwater bridge

    The option of removing the Stillwater bridge and diverting all cross-river traffic to Osceola and Hudson was not discussed very much. What do you suppose the politics of that option is?

    • Submitted by Tom Clark on 06/07/2013 - 11:52 am.

      The politics are similar to this

      From a report in the Star Tribune back in April of 2008:

      ***** begin *****

      ‘Freeway’ with stoplights

      How Hwy. 169 wound up with stoplights is a story that began well before Hennepin County landed federal funding to turn old County Road 18, a two-lane roadway, into a four-lane divided highway controlled by signals at Anderson Lakes Parkway, Pioneer Trail and Highwood Drive on the Eden Prairie-Bloomington border.

      Complaints about delays and safety problems caused by the traffic signals started on day one after it opened in 1997. From 2006 to 2008, state records show 320 crashes occurred at the interchange and another 200 in congestion leading up to it. Though highway officials have been trying for years to correct the problem, a shortage of road construction money has delayed removing the lights.

      In the county’s defense, then-Hennepin Public Works Director Vern Genzlinger said trying to build a freeway from the beginning would have encountered such heavy public resistance and delay that the project could have lost its federal funding. During the early planning stages in the 1980s, Eden Prairie feared a freeway would encourage development to leapfrog its undeveloped areas to locales south of the Minnesota River. So 169 was planned with stoplights. By the time the highway was built in the mid-1990s, Eden Prairie was largely built out and no longer concerned about the leapfrog effect. But the project was already too far along to change it without risking losing federal funding. …

      ***** end *****

      Let’s just say that MnDoT is not keen on being burned like this again by such NIMBYism, especially for a project that would be much more expensive to have to do over again.

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