Plans to build a new bridge over the St. Croix River near Stillwater got some high-level attention Wednesday after two members of President Barack Obama's Cabinet met with the congressional delegations of Minnesota and Wisconsin. But there's still a deep divide between supporters and opponents of the new bridge.
Ordinarily Congress — let alone Cabinet members — wouldn't get involved in whether or not to build a bridge between two states. But everything about finding a replacement for the aging Stillwater lift bridge is complicated.
The St. Croix River is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. So a new bridge needs an exemption from Congress, and that has led to a nasty fight within Minnesota's congressional delegation.
On one side there's DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Rep. and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who are sponsoring the bills for a new bridge in each chamber. Klobuchar said it's been an especially tough slog to get these bills through a gridlocked Congress.
"It is probably the most difficult year we've ever had of legislative action, but where there's a will there's a way," she said.
Klobuchar and Bachmann have support from the governors of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the other three U.S. senators from both states and several House members from both parties.
But DFL Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison oppose the bridge bill in its current form, even though their Twin Cities districts don't include Stillwater or the St. Croix River region, where the bridge and its related infrastructure are planned to be situated.
McCollum, who has followed this issue since her days in the Minnesota Legislature, supports a new bridge but argues that the one being planned is an overly large and expensive boondoggle.
"This is not a new issue to me. The consensus is there needs to be a bridge. It doesn't need to be a $700 million bridge for 18,000 cars," she said.
McCollum and Ellison have now fired a legislative shot across the bow to Klobuchar and Bachmann's bills with a bill of their own that would limit federal money for a new bridge.
Enter Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
In this case, his role might be better described as peace maker rather than as Cabinet member. He and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spent nearly an hour with the delegations in a Capitol conference room. Afterwards, LaHood presented himself as an honest broker.
"We don't take a position on legislation, we don't get elected. That's what these guys get elected to do around here," he said.
He suggested forming a working group to iron out some of the differences, but said Klobuchar and Bachmann should push ahead with their bills for the larger St. Croix bridge.
McCollum was happy with the working group idea. But to her, it's clear that consensus means a smaller bridge.
That's not what either Bachmann — who called into the meeting by phone from the campaign trail — or Klobuchar have in mind. Klobuchar noted that both Ellison and McCollum's districts have major transportation projects under way and funded with federal dollars.
"I supported the Central Corridor and those projects [including] Union Depot because I think they're good for our state," she said. "I think that replacing a bridge that is basically rusting out, that's also good for our state."
MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel flew out to Washington for the meeting. He said McCollum's proposal to redesign the bridge is a non-starter.
"Any other option would require us to start over, and if you start the process over and it takes another seven or eight years, possibly longer, then the inflation costs are just going to eat us up," he said.
Gov. Mark Dayton has said before that the state money for a new St. Croix bridge can't sit around in limbo while Congress takes its time. While he had previously set a now-expired Sept. 30 deadline for Congress to act before applying the funds to other projects, Sorel said there was no danger that the money set aside for the bridge would be reallocated right away.
"I think we're OK right now. There will be a point if it goes too long, then we've got to regroup and figure out how we're going to handle that," he said.
Bridge supporters hope to get their bills through Congress before the end of the year. While they're confident the bills can pass, Congress may run out of time before the holidays.