A Congressional subcommittee devoted a large part of its meeting Wednesday to a planned new highway bridge across the St. Croix River near Stillwater, Minn.
A proposal to bypass federal environmental law to build the bridge was one of 11 bills under consideration before the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. But it was by far the most contentious bill the panel considered.
The new span would replace the aging lift bridge that connects Minnesota and Wisconsin. The increasing bridge traffic often spills over into downtown Stillwater, causing miles-long traffic tieups.
Read a timeline of the Stillwater Lift Bridge's long history.
The St. Croix River is protected by the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the National Park Service says the proposed new span doesn't comply with the law. But Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and others argue that a two-lane bridge no longer meets the area's needs.
Bachmann, a Republican, represents Minnesota's 6th Congressional District, which includes Stillwater. Her bill heard Wednesday would simply deem the planned bridge consistent with the law so that construction could begin. The House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands referred the bill to the full committee for a vote to be held later.
LITTLE DISAGREEMENT OVER NEED
The two-lane Stillwater Lift Bridge is 80 years old, and there's little dispute that it needs replacing. Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki made that clear in his opening statement, holding up pieces of cement and steel that had fallen off of the bridge.
With power and sewage plants already at the planned new crossing in Oak Park Heights, it's hardly a wild and undisturbed stretch of river, Harycki said.
"That particular section of the river is not scenic," he said.
But environmental groups continue to oppose a new four-lane highway bridge. In a letter to the Republican congressman who oversees the House Natural Resources Committee, a coalition of 24 Wisconsin and Minnesota groups urged a "low-profile, modestly scaled bridge that reflects the real traffic need and honors the federally protected status of the St. Croix."
Although the bill only addresses the bridge over the St. Croix, the groups said it would set a "damaging national precedent." The National Park Service is also concerned Bachmann's bill would weaken the law, which is aimed at protecting the nation's most pristine riverways from development.
Testifying in favor of her bill, Bachmann stressed the vital economic role of a new bridge, saying the construction project could employ more than 6,000 people.
"It's impossible to measure the crippling economic impact that the St. Croix River crossing project delay has cost our two states from a commerce and jobs standpoint," she said.
Bachmann has long been critical of government spending and said, for example, that the 2009 stimulus bill didn't create any jobs. The project's estimated $633 million price tag would be funded mostly through bonds issued by both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
SOME COMPLAIN ABOUT SCALE OF PROPOSED SPAN
While Stillwater officials support the proposal, the mayor of nearby Oak Park Heights, where the bridge would actually be built, came to Washington at his own expense to protest the planned bridge, calling it "inflated and out of scale."
"It is out of scale for the taxpayers who will pay for it; it is out of scale for the property owners who will live with the impact of this giant structure," Mayor Ken Beaudet said.
Though Beaudet backs a new bridge, he says he's against the current bridge proposal. He also worried about the precedent Bachmann's bill would set.
But the panel's Republicans said the National Park Service didn't seem interested in approving any replacement for the existing bridge.
CHAIRMAN EXPECTS BILL TO PASS
After the hearing, subcommittee chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he expected the full House Natural Resources Committee would approve the bill.
"I think it's a dumb issue," Bishop told reporters after the hearing. "It should have been solved a long time ago, and it's being held up by the federal government playing around with definitional terms."
No date has yet been scheduled for a vote by the full committee. If it passes that hurdle, a bill would still have to get through the full House of Representatives and the Senate before landing on President Barack Obama's desk.
Bachmann has bipartisan support on the issue, including from Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats.
But Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum opposes the bridge, saying Bachmann's plan is too large and expensive. Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, hasn't yet taken a position on the issue.
(MPR Reporter Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this report.)