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A new bridge opens over the St. Croix, and even a skeptic finds it beautiful

A new bridge opens over the St. Croix
The St. Croix Crossing, formerly known as the new Stillwater bridge, has been ranked by some as the most expensive single bridge project in U.S. history.

Heading for the Stillwater Lift Bridge on Wednesday morning, my neighbor Nancy and I listed things we would not miss after its closure — the rush-hour traffic jams, the periodic weeks of downtime for inspections and repairs, the occasional sudden shutdown for a stuck truck or equipment glitch ….

We were en route to the dedication ceremony for the beautiful, brand-new new bridge and Nancy was driving, so I had a rare chance coming down that long hill on the Wisconsin side to gaze at a lovely river and the charming old city climbing away from it, without having to steer.

This, I realized, is a windshield vista I have loved for a long time and will surely miss forever.

***

The St. Croix Crossing, formerly known as the new Stillwater bridge, has been ranked by some as the most expensive single bridge project in U.S. history, with an official price tag of $646 million. And the result is impressive, a gleaming white melding of concrete box girders and steel suspension stays said to be only the second of its type in the country.

But getting it built proved to be an unexpectedly complex and protracted problem, given the age and supposedly failing health of the 1931 lift bridge. It is a struggle I have been covering with rising skepticism for nearly 20 years, starting with editorials for the Star Tribune when I resided in southwest Minneapolis.

Now I live maybe six miles east of the bridge, in Wisconsin. When I moved here in 2008, many who liked to argue bridge issues assumed I would move into the proponents’ camp because replacement would shorten my commute, raise my property’s value, and so on.

But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Instead, my intimate and often daily experience of the lift bridge only  deepened my sense that its inconvenience factors and structural decline, while not negligible, have long been exaggerated to sell a new bridge, any bridge, ASAP.

My love of the valley deepened, too, and with it a hope that the inevitable and necessary new bridge might be sensibly lower, slimmer and slower than the four-lane, high-speed, blufftop-to-blufftop span perpetually pushed by highway engineers, who pretty much always get their way.

Still, as I waited for the ribbon-cutting with many hundreds of others, it was possible to appreciate the St. Croix Crossing for its own sake, without a twinge of rancor.

It is indeed a beautiful structure, sleek and simple, both from pavement level and, as Sallie and I discovered on Sunday via kayaks, from river level as well. It surely will be a pleasure to cross by car, bicycle or foot, up there in the treetops.

Its breathtaking cost — not just for the span but the associated acres of roadway, ramps, roundabouts and land reshaping, plus environmental mitigation and impact aid to adjacent communities — represent a major infrastructure investment of the kind this country needs to make more often, and by extension a lot of business investment and payroll.

And, at long last, it is done.

***

A sense of relieved accomplishment seemed to define the public mood at the dedication, which was happy but not boisterous, just as it dominated the remarks of officialdom: the Minnesota and Wisconsin governors, a local officeholder from each end of the crossing, and two Wisconsin members of the U.S. House.

The emcee was Mayor Mary McComber, who once or twice corrected references to “the new Stillwater bridge” by pointing out that its western end is in her city of Oak Park Heights.

She spoke of the dozens of homes there that were razed for the project. And she thanked the whole citizenry for “their patience, their tolerance and their endurance above all” during a construction process in which “the landscape has changed tremendously — creating a new normal” for citizens and businesses that will require some adjustment time.

Her Wisconsin counterpart, Tom Spaniol, chair of the board that oversees my home township of St. Joseph, surmised that many in the crowd still knew little of what they would soon encounter  motoring eastward over the bridge: “wide open vistas, rolling hills, cornfields and old farmhouses … with the first stoplight six miles away.”

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Spectators viewed the opening of the St. Croix Crossing on Wednesday.

That is going to change, of course. Nobody disputes that the bridge will bring urban sprawl to communities on the Wisconsin side; the questions are whether the most dire sprawl forecasts will come to pass, and how soon, and how effectively the growth can be guided by local leaders like Spaniol.

Both Minnesota’s Gov. Mark Dayton and Wisconsin’s U.S. Rep. Ron Kind noted that hassles over the bridge replacement were the subject of their very first official meeting on arriving in Washington (Dayton for his U.S. Senate term in 2001, Kind in 1997).

Dayton drew a laugh by observing that the issue had persisted into the next millennium, and seemed likely at times to linger into the millennium beyond that.

But it didn’t, chiefly because Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, both of whom had opposed the project, decided to change course — in Dayton’s case, on what seemed to many a whim after touring the old bridge with former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.

With that backing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (who couldn’t attend the ceremony, but sent a letter) was able to carve an exception for the bridge into federal law that protects the St. Croix, a designated scenic riverway managed by the National Park Service, from such encroachments.

As the officials congratulated each other and an ever-growing list of people who made it all possible — from construction workers to lobbyists to participants in a long stakeholder mediation — the mood in the crowd seemed to be: We can still build things in this country. We can still get things done.

And I admit I found it impossible not to share in that sentiment, too.

***

There were no visible protesters at the dedication, nor did I hear anybody utter a critical word about the project during the few hours I spent at the bridge.

Dayton and others referenced controversy only briefly and obliquely, without a hint as to what the opponents had actually opposed. (Nor, come to think of it, did they thank the critics for essentially forcing the stakeholder consultation that every speaker agreed produced such a wonderful final result, by making the case for design changes and mitigation measures that left it  a little kinder to the valley.)

My congressman, Sean Duffy, approached his turn at the podium as a stand-up comedy gig and, as an illustration of the lift bridge’s supposed decrepitude, said he had toured it with Klobuchar “and we were picking up screws!” If so, they probably weren’t bridge parts. Bolts, perhaps?

Some still seem to believe that the project’s only foes were doctrinaire environmentalists opposed to any new bridge alongside the aging one that was going to fail sooner or later. In fact, there was a sizable campaign against the project from the taxpayer watchdog groups that target large federal outlays for narrowly local benefits (an agenda Michele Bachmann often shared when the dough was going to someone else’s district).

And with the possible exception of an irrational activist here or there whom I’ve forgotten, the environmentalist objection was not to replacement per se, which all agreed would be needed someday, and somewhere other than the lift bridge’s location.

But, they said, let’s not duplicate the I-94 crossing six miles to the south, needlessly accelerating sprawl into the landscape so lovingly described yesterday by Tom Spaniol. Instead, they called for a smaller, slimmer, lower and slower-speed bridge that would serve all of the transportation functions of the existing bridge while fitting better into the valley landscape and costing a whole lot less.

***

The new bridge was still a construction site as we assembled on its approach ramp for the dedication ceremony; its opening time wasn’t known until Dayton, prodded by McComber, announced from the podium it would be 8 p.m. There being no parking on its roadways, we traveled to the ramp on school buses running shuttle service from various large parking lots around Stillwater.

This actually turned out to be handy for a notoriously poor crowd estimator like myself, standing in a sea of people, with no opportunity to climb to a higher vantage point. I can report that the crowd was about six lanes wide and about seven buses deep. In other words, a whole lot of people.

Movable concrete barriers separated what would become the Minnesota-bound lanes from the Wisconsin-bound, and with a half-hour to go before the program commenced, some of us noticed school buses crossing the unopened bridge from the east. I mentioned that shuttles were coming from Somerset, too, and maybe New Richmond or other places in Wisconsin.

“Figures,” said a white-haired fellow with three cameras around this neck. “Minnesota pays most of the cost of this bridge, and Wisconsinites get to jump the gun.”

But a pleasant surprise awaited us Minnesota shuttlers on the return trip. Instead of turning around on the bridge approach, as they had after dropping us off, the drivers now took us all the way across the bridge to a turnaround in St. Joseph, then back across to our cars.

We rode like schoolchildren as the vehicle gathered speed, half-standing and swaying, pressing to the glass as the bridge’s white webbing flew past, the shining St. Croix so far beneath us.

It was a terrific aerial view and for a moment I tried to transplant a recollected image of a street-level, two-lane alternative design into the valley below, but all of those memories were out of mind now.

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Comments (18)

a beautiful bridge

Finally - - Progress!!

Hideousness

The hideousness of this bridges is shocking, particularly when compared to the beautiful bridges crossing the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Utterly tasteless.

Thanks for all your writing on this issue... and a question

Who was the Minnesota congressperson in that pair?
"A sense of relieved accomplishment seemed to define the public mood on the bridge, which was happy but not boisterous, just as it dominated the remarks of officialdom: two governors, two members of the U.S. House and two local officials, one in each pair from Minnesota and the other from Wisconsin." And no Congressperson Betty M nor former congressperson Michelle B.? Where were they?
Tom Clarke

Answer

From the Minnesota side, the speakers were Gov. Dayton and Oak Park Heights mayor Mary McComber. The congressmen were both from Wisconsin: Sean Duffy and Ron Kind. There were no congressmen from Minnesota; Michelle Bachman and Betty McCollum were not present.

This is a $700M reminder that

This is a $700M reminder that Democrats aren't serious about climate change and Republicans aren't serious about spending wisely.

True...

this 646 million $ spent on this 'bridge to nowhere' could have been used much more wisely by improving present Minnesota roads and existing bridge structures.

The cost of this bridge has just begun

As the most expensive bridge in history, the costs of this project have just begun. For starters, the bridge will add to an already congested Hwy 36 one of the most congested highways in the Twin Cities adding to commute times, and air pollution. This will lead to demands to expand Hwy 36 to three lanes, which of course will only exacerbate the congestion. Stoplights will have to be added at any rate. Meanwhile, plans for improving mass transit such as light rail (which used to service Stillwater) are nonexistent.

"Nobody disputes that the bridge will bring urban sprawl to communities on the Wisconsin side; the questions are whether the most dire sprawl forecasts will come to pass, and how soon, and how effectively the growth can be guided by local leaders like Spaniol."

If past experience in the east Metro (and especially Hudson) are any guide, sprawl will not be managed at all. In short, people who think they are moving to “wide open vistas, rolling hills, cornfields and old farmhouses … with the first stoplight six miles away” are living in a dream world if they think this bridge is going to do anything but making sure that dream ends soon. St. Joseph township and surrounding areas of St. Croix County will shortly resemble Woodbury, Eagan or any of the other cluttered landscapes destroyed by "progress."

And To Top It Off

We had to pay for it, even though it just makes it easier for WI folks to earn higher MN wages and take that $$$ back there. What a boondoggle.

Though I have no desire to intrude on this gentle article

to pummel a long-dead equine, I would lodge an equally gentle objection to Mr. Meador’s statement that “with the possible exception of an irrational activist here or there whom I’ve forgotten, the environmentalist objection was not to replacement per se.”

I don’t think of myself as an “irrational activist,” but rather as someone who tries to be morally and analytically rigorous in public policy judgment. And I very definitely favored closing the Stillwater
Bridge without building a replacement.

As you note, all of the travel modeling at the time indicated that the bridge would blow a hole in regional (Met Council) growth management efforts, with the concomitant environmental and public fiscal consequences, all to create some temporary construction jobs and effect a nice wealth transfer from the public to landowners and developers in St. Croix and Polk Counties. With the I-94 bridge just downriver for regional use, the only legitimate public purpose of the bridge (other than serving as an object of aesthetic appreciation) would be to honor the expectations of those already living or operating businesses who had made the choice in reliance on a nearby crossing. But that limited purpose plainly did not justify the extraordinary expense.

The modeling at this point is approaching a couple of decades old; perhaps the parameters have changed. There is little to do now but hope that the predicted impacts do not bear out.

Pleased to meet you,

Mr. Holtman, and thanks for your comment.

If you are saying, as I think you are, that you favored closing the lift bridge to cars and trucks without replacing even the existing capacity at that crossing, then that really is a new one on me, I think.

Not an irrational position at all, as you lay out the argument. But we can probably agree it was a politically impossible objective, as all alternatives to MnDOT's preference have  proved to be.

Mr. Meador, pleased to meet you as well.

Yes, that was precisely my position. The issues were: (a) congestion in downtown Stillwater from lift bridge traffic; and (b) the bridge’s structural degradation making it unsafe for car and truck traffic. Both of these issues were immediately resolved simply by closing the bridge to car and truck traffic. The question of whether to build a replacement bridge was a logically independent question and such a bridge needed to be justified on its own merits. There was never an attempt to do so and to my view it could not have been done.

I agree completely that my position was politically impossible. In the late 1990’s, I assisted the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy in seeking to stop the bridge on growth management grounds. In response to MCEA and Sierra Club rabble-rousing, MnDOT formed a working group for the diverse interests to sit down together. At the first meeting, I counted about 25 invited working group members: MCEA, the Sierra Club, and the rest transportation engineers, chambers of commerce and developers. At that time I sensed that certain alternatives might prove to be off the table.

Missing the point about urban sprawl

What causes urban sprawl isn't roads, but a refusal to allow for higher housing densities. The towns of Afton and Grant, and of course Lake Elmo, have been steadfast in their refusal to allow affordable housing to be built within their borders. Woodbury is pretty much built out as well as Oakdale, and that's why you have people looking for affordable homes in Wisconsin. Castigating the new bridge as a cause of sprawl is putting the cart before the horse.

They both are highly germane, no?

Of course certain east metro communities that ought to accommodate higher density resist that, and the Met Council has not had the political will or wherewithal to push back very hard. But if there were no replacement bridge, suburban and commercial/industrial development in Polk County certainly would accrue at a much slower pace.

If it's sprawl you're concerned about

You have to have higher residential densities, whether it's in Lake Elmo or Linden Hills. Otherwise, people will go where there's affordable housing. If not Polk County, then along the I-94 corridor in western Wisconsin. Simply not building a bridge doesn't resolve the issue.

I'm with Mr. Holtman

This bridge may well be the best example of irrational transportation spending in the entire nation. What "problem" did it solve? Congestion in Stillwater? The most obvious and efficient solution to THAT problem would have been to simply shut down the bridge to auto traffic. There was no need to build the most expensive bridge in America in order to relieve congestion in Stillwater. Did we need to build the most expensive bridge in America six miles North of an existing interstate freeway bridge in order to connect MN and WI? Obviously not, we already have a bridge, we didn't need another one. Who did we build this bridge for? Is there a major population center across the river from Stillwater that we haven't heard of and could only be served by the most expensive bridge in America? Did these people who choose to live in WI across the river from Stillwater fail to notice that they needed to get across a big river in order to get to their jobs on the other side?

Yeah, this is sprawl on a monumental scale, it's bad economics, bad environmentalism, and bad transportation policy. The only problem we faced other than congestion in Stillwater was slightly inconvenienced but small constituency in WI that wanted to shave some time off of their commute into MN, AFTER choosing to live in WI despite that commute. Whatever... bring in the most expensive bridge in America. The most obvious "solution" for both Stillwater AND Wisconsinites was to shut the lift bridge down, and build a faster road to 94 on the WI side. A road would have been hundred of millions of dollars less expensive and it would get WI commuters into MN with a reasonable commute. After all, no one is entitled to a fast commute, specially when they decide to live in a different state on the other side of a river. We already have that road infrastructure on the MN side, that six mile drive on the MN side takes ten minutes.

Given the history of towns that are bypassed by highways and railroads in America I'm not sure we can assume that this bridge is going to be good for Stillwater economically. It may well just turn Stillwater into another town that everyone just dives by on their way to somewhere else. Sure, the absence of congestion will be nice, but they didn't the bridge to solve that problem. They may well find that it's going to more difficult to get people to stop in Stillwater, or go to Stillwater now that they bridge is there. And I haven't seen it yet, but the allure of Stillwater is the River, not the bridges that cross the river, no matter how beautiful this bridges is... is it more beautiful than the river used to be? Are people going to go to Stillwater now to look at the new bridge?

It was absolutely political feasible to improve the infrastructure connecting to 94 on the WI rather than build the most expensive bridge in America. In fact, it would have been far easier, and could have been done long ago if "leaders" had been thinking rationally. Shutting down the lift bridge likewise was a simply decision. And if you'll recall this really all ended up hinging on Gov. Dayton's sudden flip flop on support... until that point the new bridge was actually a long shot. Let's not pretend that bridge was inevitable in some way. It could have easily been blocked as several points.

This was 1960s transportation policy built at 21st century expense. At a time when Americans are moving towards more dense urban living environments we spent $600 million on big fancy bridge to farm fields WI. So either we sprawl out across the river, which is economically and environmentally absurd, or we don't... which leaves the most expensive bridge in America sitting there moving a fraction of the traffic it was designed to move. Either way, it's a lose lose.

Wisconsin/Minnesota Republicans: the illegals are stealing jobs!

Demand bridge to help Wisconsinites steal Minnesotans jobs

And...

By the way, we realize that congestion will follow the sprawl right? We know that projects like this tend to attract congestion, they don't typically relieve it beyond on a short honeymoon phase. It doesn't take much sprawl and development to add that saved 20-30 minutes back into the commute. So the "best" case scenario would be that little if any new development materializes, and the most expensive bridge in America ends up carrying a fraction of the traffic it was designed to carry. Yahoo?

Not the Most Expensive Bridge

Where did the suggestion that this was "...the most expensive single bridge project in U.S. history, with an official price tag of $646 million" come from? The cost of the recent reconstruction of the eastern span of the San Francisco- Oakland Bay Bridge was $6.4 billion, ten times the cost. I'm sure the Varrazano-Narrows, Chesapeake Bay, George Washington, and many other bridges would cost in excess of $1 billion in today's dollars to build.