One of the region's longest running transportation disputes, a proposal for a new bridge over the St. Croix River near Stillwater, Minn., appears to be headed back to the drawing board.
A federal judge in Minneapolis ruled Thursday the federal government violated its own rules in approving the bridge design.
Environmentalists are cheered by the ruling, while Minnesota and Wisconsin officials say they are disappointed.
In 2005, the National Park Service gave the green light for building a new four-lane, freeway-style bridge over the St. Croix River. The St. Croix is part of the country's system of wild and scenic rivers giving it special protection.
The Sierra Club, long a critic of the bridge design, filed suit.
Federal Judge Michael Davis in his 93-page ruling noted that in 2005, the National Park Service performed an evaluation of the proposed bridge and characterized the bridge's visual effect as "dramatic and disruptive."
Then the National Park Service did an about face.
Judge Davis wrote in his ruling: "The National Park Service then inexplicably concluded that the new bridge would not directly and adversely affect the Lower St. Croix's outstandingly remarkable scenic and recreational values."
Judge Davis called the federal decision the hallmark of arbitrary and capricious decision making.
Sierra Club North Star chapter spokesman Jim Rickard said the ruling appears to send the bridge proposal back to the drawing board.
Rickard said the Sierra Club is not opposed to a new river crossing of some sort, just not the four-lane, freeway-style structure proposed by the Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation departments.
"We don't have to be designing a bridge for 80,000-pound trucks to travel at 65 miles per hour," Rickard said. "They have an alternative that's very viable, namely [Interstate] 94, and many of them are using that today."
"If we can come to grips on what is the standard we're designing for we can find alternatives that will be much smaller in scale and still accommodate growth and significantly lower the price tag," Rickard said.
A proposed new crossing over the St. Croix river near Stillwater has been in the works for fifty years.
Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., whose district includes western Wisconsin, said he's disappointed with the judge's ruling.
Kind said a smaller bridge is not a good idea given growth predictions for eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin border counties.
"That's why both department of transportation officials agree if we're going to do this and build a bridge, let's build one that's worthy of the projected growth of the region so that we're not revisiting this 10, or 15, or 20 years down the road and kicking ourselves that we did not make it as big as it should be," Kind said.
The most recent price tag for the new bridge is put at near $700 million, up by hundreds of millions since it was first proposed half a century ago.
In an email, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials said they are disappointed with the ruling, saying they won't know how much of a setback the ruling is until they review the court ruling.
Similar statements of disappointment came from the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce and from the St. Croix Valley Economic Development Corporation representing interests in 10 western Wisconsin counties.
Nearly everyone agrees the current two-lane lift bridge in downtown Stillwater needs replacement for at least two reasons - it's old and starting to crumble, and its location and limited capacity cause big traffic jams that frustrate down merchants and Stillwater residents.
The Sierra Club and dozens of other groups from the private and public sector have held talks on and off for the past few years trying to iron out differences.
Options for what happens next include an appeal of Judge Davis' ruling by Minnesota or Wisconsin, or a new review of the bridge design by the National Park Service and, or resumption of talks among the various interest groups on a new design.
Whatever happens, the reality is transportation projects everywhere, many facing much less controversy than a new St. Croix river bridge, are waiting in line for money that, at the moment, is scarce.
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