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Rep. Betty McCollum, adamant in opposing St. Croix 'mega-bridge,' calls for cheaper, 'consensus plan'

An artist's rendering of a proposed design for the Stillwater bridge.
Minnesota Department of Transportation
An artist's rendering of a proposed design for the Stillwater bridge.

For years, government officials and community groups have been planning for a new bridge across the St. Croix River to replace the deteriorating lift-bridge in downtown Stillwater.

Eventually, plans for a freeway-style bridge just south of Stillwater seemed to be the solution, but the effort was derailed when environmentalists claimed — and a court agreed — that the plan would violate the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Now, a new effort to bypass the Act is pending in Congress, supported by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, whose district includes the river crossings. Gov. Mark Dayton, too, has backed the plan.

In late May, Sen. Al Franken added his support, joining Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Wisconsin's two U.S. senators in favoring the new structure.

This week, the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bill making it easier for that state to get funding for its share of the bridge costs, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood expressing support for the bridge. On Thursday, the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing issued a statement praising the Wisconsin action.

That leaves 4th District Congresswoman Betty McCollum, whose district lies 10 miles to the west of the bridge, as the chief congressional voice against the plan.

MinnPost corresponded by email with McCollum, who has been in the Mideast this week, about her continued opposition to the proposed bridge. Here is an edited transcript.

MinnPost: You've long been against the plans for a big freeway-style bridge plans south of Stillwater. Is cost your major concern?

Rep. Betty McCollum
Rep. Betty McCollum

Rep. Betty McCollum: Cost should be every Minnesota taxpayer's concern. Did you know the proposed St. Croix mega-bridge would be the most expensive bridge ever built in Minnesota? This project will cost $700 million and serve 18,000 vehicles the day it opens. Compare that to the $390 million price tag for building BOTH the new Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis and the Lafayette Bridge under construction in downtown St. Paul. The I-35W and Lafayette bridges are used by nearly 300,000 Minnesotans every day.

Based on the facts, the mega-bridge fails every common-sense test of taxpayer value. The mega-bridge wastes taxpayer money, especially when smaller, less-expensive options are available. Stillwater needs and deserves a new bridge, but a $700 million mega-bridge only six miles from the I-94 crossing is both excessive and irresponsible.

MinnPost: How about the environmental concerns?

McCollum: The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is the law of the land. It should be respected, not tampered with, as is being proposed in both the House and Senate legislation. I believe the Stillwater Lift Bridge can be replaced in a way that's compatible with the letter and spirit of the law. The St. Croix is the only river in Minnesota protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The current design has been litigated and delayed for years and years because it violates the law.

Beyond Minnesota, the mega-bridge sets a new, dangerously low standard that would threaten every mile of every protected river in the national Wild and Scenic River system.

MinnPost: You've said that a new bridge would benefit Wisconsin more than Minnesota. How does that work?

McCollum: The estimates I've seen show 75 percent of the bridge traffic would be from Wisconsin, while Minnesota taxpayers pay the majority of the costs.

MinnPost: Would a new bridge feed urban sprawl, too?

McCollum: The proposed four-lane, freeway-style mega-bridge is designed to accelerate urban sprawl. But growth at the edges of the metro has come to a screeching halt because of the housing slump and high gas prices. So the bridge is not only poor urban planning, but it's also out of sync with today's economic realities. A smaller, appropriately scaled bridge can meet the transportation needs of both Minnesota and Wisconsin residents, regardless of population growth in St. Croix County.

MinnPost: The four U.S. senators from Minnesota and Wisconsin endorsed the new bridge last week, Gov. Dayton seems to be in favor, and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has introduced legislation to get around the court ruling. Does that affect your stance?

McCollum: No it doesn't. I've seen strong bipartisan support for lots of really bad policies since I came to Congress. Democrats and Republicans supported the Iraq War, No Child Left Behind, and the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. I opposed all these policies from the start, even though they were politically popular. But in time, they all proved disastrous for the United States. Now the chair of the Tea Party Caucus in the House [Bachmann] wants to spend $700 million in taxpayer funds on a bridge to Houlton, Wis., population 400. I see this as another bipartisan boondoggle.

MinnPost: Stillwater and the St. Croix area aren't in your district (which includes Ramsey County) so why are you so adamant on this?

McCollum: I've been around this issue since 1987 when I joined the North St. Paul City Council. And I'm engaged in it today because I represent the communities with the most to lose from the current bridge design. This mega-bridge will dump tens of thousands more cars and semi-trucks into the Highway 36 corridor, making traffic much worse for Oakdale, North St. Paul, Maplewood, Little Canada, and Roseville — communities I represent. Taxpayers in these communities are being asked to help pay the $700 million cost of the mega-bridge without getting a dollar of that money to help mitigate the traffic mess the bridge will create in their communities.

MinnPost: Do we need something to replace the Stillwater Lift Bridge?

McCollum: I have always said the residents of Stillwater deserve a new bridge that's affordable, appropriately scaled and meets their community's transportation needs without creating new transportation problems.

MinnPost: Is there a middle ground here, some way to meet midstream, so to speak?

McCollum: My firm belief is that the only way a bridge will be built — after 40 years of failed attempts — is to find the middle ground. That means finding the right balance of location, bridge design and scale, and cost to taxpayers, while addressing real transportation and environmental needs. Every one of these issues can be addressed, and must be addressed, if a bridge is going to be built.

Minnesota built a state-of-the art bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis in record time. We can solve the problem in Stillwater. But jamming legislation through Congress is only going to cause more lawsuits and more delay. The current bridge design is the problem. Let's scrap it and find a consensus bridge plan that can be built for an affordable cost.

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Comments (20)

Wow. Like, how totally, awesomely right is she?

I'm very disappointed that Klobuchar and Franken aren't with McCollum on this. She has the right idea.

I agree with Mc Cullum, Why spend so much money when it can be done done cheaper. I like all her reasons for not moving forward as planned now.

Who makes the money off the $700 million bridge? I have a feeling that's where we're getting the idea is the proposed bridge or nothing.

No bridge should ever be built that doesn't include a dynamically tolled lane. If you are in a hurry and drive alone you can pay a toll or you can car pool for free in the toll lane or drive "free" in the through lane. Result: fewer lanes needed and they can adjust to congestion. Thank you, Betty.

Thank you for allowing someone to tell the truth about the proposed bridge. It will cost too much money to benefit a small group. Can someone get this information to MB and AF?

Betty is too beholden to the grand daddy of the DFL, Walter Mondale, who has a house on the river, to be objective about this issue. He and now she are on the wrong side of this issue. A big bridge is needed. Enormous amounts of productivity will be gained with a new bridge, not to mention the peace of mind gained by replacing a bridge that is dangerously old and decrepit. Move forward without delay.

Way to stand up for your constituents, Betty!

I don't understand how 75% of the bridge traffic could be from Wisconsin. If the traffic is not roughly equal in both directions, wouldn't Minnesota (and point west) wind up with lots more cars than Wisconsin (and points east)?

Perhaps, cars from Wisconsin would come over the bridge, but those going east would use another route. That does not seem right.

Otherwise, perhaps Betty meant that most traffic starts from Wisconsin in the morning as commuters to the Twin Cities. I would guess that then most would return home the same way in the evening. This would mean Minnesota (especially businesses) are getting most of the bridge benefit.

I hate to be picky but I don't want to drive across a "cheap" bridge. Does that make sense to you? The Lafayette bridge was a cheap bridge that's why it is being replaced before it's expected economic life is done.

Meet the needs of the area for the "life of the project" not just today's needs and do it with something that doesn't have to be replaced every 35 years. Short lived infrastructure is not a good investment and in some instances is down right dangerous.

She generally makes a compelling argument. Though I find the 'Wild & Scenic Rivers' defense a bit disingenuous, given, as she notes, the proposed bridge is only 6 miles from the Hwy 94 bridge.

McCollum is absolutely correct on this issue, and I will say as much to Amy Klobuchar when I see her this evening. I do have a question, however: Why is it that Minnesota will pay more of the cost than Wisconsin?

Why not repair the existing bridge? Stillwater has adopted it as its symbol, much as Duluth has adopted its lift bridge as its emblem, and I've heard nothing about replacing or demolishing that bridge. Aside from the environmental question, aside from the architectural aesthetics of whatever bridge might be built, a crossing that BYPASSES Historic Downtown Stillwater would certainly seal its fate as a GHOST TOWN. Local retailers refuse to consider this threat -- they have been brainwashed into believing that the REAL threat to commerce and tourism is "all that TRAFFIC." Sure, when the bridge is TEMPORARILY closed, business downtown may increase. But in the long term, a bypass will leave Stillwater forgotten and ignored. If the 4-lane freeway-style bridge were built, how would Highway 36 accommodate the added congestion? In all the discussions of the promised "benefits" of this bridge, this subject has been ignored. Instead of having a traffic jam that starts in Maplewood and extends all the way to Minneapolis, such a bridge would guarantee a traffic jam that starts in New Richmond, Wisconsin and continues all the way to Minneapolis.
Michele Bachmann -- or members of her family -- own some farmland in Wisconsin, somewhere near the highway that would feed this bridge. Could she be anticipating a sudden rise in the value of that land when her bridge is built?
Betty McCollum understands these concerns and I thank her for her opposition to the "Bachmann Bridge"!!!

//I don't understand how 75% of the bridge traffic could be from Wisconsin.

Dude, what comes across goes back across.

No one said they want to build a cheap bridge, Betty just wants to spend less on a smaller scale bridge. Mark my words, if this bridge is ever built Stillwater will rue the day.

@10: It's cheaper because it's a reasonable size, not because it's being made out of Popsicle sticks.

@7: It seems to me those are three non-points. Having a friend who has a house on the river overriding all other concerns is a pretty outrageous claim, particularly when she presents logically consistent and data-driven arguments to back her position. The claim that large amounts of productivity are to be gained also requires a lot of backup. Do those 18,000 cars, which would be crossing anyways at Stillwater or Hudson, represent more productivity than, say, a half billion dollars worth of investment in public transportation? Or in development of denser city neighborhoods rather than encouraging sprawl (something which has been qualitatively shown to be incredibly costly). Finally, any replacement of the current bridge, big or small, would bring that same "peace of mind". It's not like bigger bridges are somehow safer.

Jody (#10) -- this wouldn't be a "cheap" bridge; it just wouldn't be an overpriced piece of pork.

If the $700 billion bridge were to be built, not only would truck traffic through the relatively pristine Stillwater-Holton area be hugely increased, but highways feeding the bridge in both directions would have to be beefed up.

Dan (#9) -- yes, a great deal of traffic comes across the Stillwater bridge morning and evening. The result is twice-daily gridlock plus tons of air pollution piled on Stillwater's charming downtown streets. On weekends, the huge numbers of tourists visiting Stillwater or Wisconsin make it wise to avoid Stillwater except on weekdays between 9:00am and 2:00 or 3:00pm.

Betty McCollum could not be more right. A good bridge of the right size in a place that will ease Stillwater's traffic jams - Yes. An overpriced mega-bridge - No, no, no.

Mr. Kimball: Is it possible to find out who the bidders on the bridge are -- and why they have so successfully sold this overpriced monster to ANY members of Congress?

@15 and @17 I don't know where you have been but there is already a four lane road on both sides of where the bridge will be. the only thing left to construct is the bridge and the final alignment approaches. Since it is at freeway design standards except for access. The Wisconsin right of way appears to be a full 300 feet. I'm not sure how much more beefing up can be done. The two lane bridge and roadway is currently a bottle neck.

Other than the height, and the span length and the fact that is four lanes I am not quite sure what makes this a mega bridge. Heck the bridge at Taylors Falls is 4 lanes. There are only three things you can do to make a bridge cheaper, make it lower, make it shorter, or make it narrower, or use less stringent materials for construction The last one didn't work out so well on 35W. None of those options feel very realistic.

Let's be candid here Rep. McCollum does not have the expertise to comment on cost what she is really commenting on is design. This is just a stall tactic and I am appalled and disappointed in her behavior.

Yeah, right Betty. Since when have you ever been a friend of the taxpayers.

If even liberals like Dayton, Klobuchar and Stuart Smalley are in favor of it, methinks you have an ulterior motive. The treehuggers' money must be really important to you this year.