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: 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.