Transportation officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin are moving forward with plans to build a new bridge spanning the St. Croix River near Stillwater, even though the project has yet to get the federal stamp of approval.
Earlier this year, a federal judge halted building a new bridge a mile south of Stillwater, saying the government had violated its own rules in approving the project.
All sides in the long running St. Croix river bridge controversy are waiting for the federal government to announce what it will do next.
LOOKING FOR SPACE, FINDING CONGESTION
The natural beauty of the St. Croix river valley has for decades attracted development, first logging and now people looking for spacious lots and affordable homes.
The fly in the ointment for many is the weekday rush hour congestion that chokes downtown Stillwater, as commuters struggle to cross the antiquated two-lane lift bridge.
Sierra Club spokesman Jim Rickard agrees there needs to be a new bridge to relieve the congestion, but said the reason the Sierra Club sued to stop the current proposal for a new freeway style bridge is because of the environmental harm it would cause to the St. Croix, a nationally protected wild and scenic river.
The St. Croix was among the first eight U. S. Rivers to gain protection in l968 under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers act.
Rickard said a new span would fuel development.
"Developers in western Wisconsin want the most amount of traffic so they can have speculative development, it's basically a subsidy to speculative development in western Wisconsin," he said.
That development is welcomed by John Soderberg, a banker who lives in New Richmond, Wisconsin, a short drive east of Stillwater and within a one hour commute from the Twin Cities.
Soderberg said about 3,000 people lived in New Richmond when he started his career there decades ago. The population is growing fast.
"It's about 9,000 and that's just in town," he said. "We're probably pushing 10,000 pretty hard and anticipate ... growth in 2020 to be about about 19 to 20,000 people."
The federal government's National Park Service finds itself at nearly center stage in the controversy. Twice, the National Park Service said a new bridge over the St. Croix would have an adverse impact on the river.
But the second time around, the park service took many by surprise and said, yes, the impact is still adverse but can be tempered and the bridge project can go forward.
Chris Stein, new park superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, didn't have a hand in either park service decision, but said $16 million worth of fixes will soften the impact.
"There's no doubt it, you can't hide a bridge, that while a bridge would have a direct and adverse impact, the scenic and recreational values of the river this mitigation package was sufficient to offset that impact," he said.
Stein does have a hand in what happens next. He's forwarded his comments on the project to his National Park Service bosses at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., although he won't reveal what he recommended until his comments have been reviewed.
WITHOUT APPROVAL, PROJECT MOVES FORWARD
In the meantime, transportation officials are proceeding with plans for construction, acquiring property for the road improvements on both sides of the river, and setting a construction start of 2013 for the project -- even though there is still no assurance it will be approved much less funded.
The total price tag of the St. Croix river crossing project is $670 million, yet the cost of the proposed bridge is less than half of that -- $330 million. Most of the rest of the money, about $340 million, is for roads and interchanges. MnDoT officials say so far $9 million has been spont on the project.
Todd Clarkowski, the Minnesota department of transportation project team leader, said the money funds six miles of road expansion.
"On the Minnesota side it's roughly three miles worth of work, two miles long on trunk Highway 36 and roughly a mile on Highway 95, and on the Wisconsin side of the project it's roughly three miles from where the bridge ends," he said.
The result is a six-mile-long St. Croix crossing that would allow vehicles on four lanes of traffic to travel at speeds up to 65 miles an hour.
Four bridges span the St. Croix within a 35-mile stretch of the river from Osceola to Prescott, Wisconsin including the massive Interstate Highway 94 bridge at Hudson.
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