The new congressional district boundaries announced this week have put another hurdle in the path to build a new four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River at Stillwater.
Beginning next year, Stillwater will be in the 4th District, not the 6th District. That means the project could be in Rep. Betty McCollum's back yard. McCollum is one of the biggest opponents of the bipartisan bridge proposal, and she said redistricting isn't changing her position.
"The bridge needs to be fiscally responsible," she said. "It needs to be appropriately scaled, and I do not support a $700 million 'mega bridge.' "
That has supporters of the new bridge worried that it could be in trouble.
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At busy times, traffic waiting to cross Stillwater's aging and overburdened lift bridge backs more than a half-mile. After breakfast at the River Oasis Cafe one morning this week, Stillwater resident Bill Dahler said he's no fan of Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, but that Bachmann is right to favor a big new bridge.
"They need the bridge and [they] need it now," Dahler said.
Dahler said McCollum's call for a smaller bridge makes no sense and is a waste of time and money.
"That bridge is a sore subject with me. They've been messing around with that for 60 years now," Dahler said. "I think Bachmann was doing a good thing there. McCollum — she's in St. Paul. She don't realize the traffic problems they have"
Sitting behind Dahler are Alson Toaves and Wendy Halverson. The husband and wife can share a glass of orange juice but can find little common political ground.
"We will always vote because I have to cancel him out and he has to cancel me out," Halverson said.
Toaves is disappointed he will no longer have the opportunity to vote for Bachmann. Halverson is delighted she'll no longer have to field questions from friends and relatives around the country about what her outspoken congresswoman has said or done.
Neither knows much about McCollum. Halverson thinks she'll be a change for the better, but her husband disagrees.
"I guess basically it's because of the bridge. Betty McCollum has been against the bridge and hasn't wanted to do it, and Michele was supporting it. I wonder what that's going to do," Toaves said.
Halverson does agree with her husband that a new bridge is needed. She's not sure it should be as big as the one that will be built if the U.S. House passes the bill the Senate recently passed. In any case, Halverson said the project cannot wait.
"It isn't a game. It's truly for public safety," she said.
DEADLINE COULD SPUR ACTION
This week Gov. Mark Dayton wrote a letter to Bachmann saying without congressional approval by March 15, state funds dedicated for the bridge will be allocated to other projects. If the House fails to act soon, McCollum's wish for new design negotiations could come true.
In downtown Stillwater, City Administrator Larry Hansen is guardedly optimistic the bridge plan will pass this year. He said if it doesn't and it remains under negotiations into next year when Stillwater becomes part of the the 4th District, the project will be doomed.
"It probably wouldn't get passed with McCollum as our congressman," Hansen said.
Hansen said he's still trying to figure out how redistricting could play into the bridge project. He said some are telling him that coupled with Dayton's newly announced deadline it could be good news for the plan.
"Our lobbyists actually looked at it as a good thing that could bring things forward that we've been waiting on since January," he said.
Hansen said every week he's been hearing that vote he's been waiting for will come "next week." But the House is only scheduled to meet a few days before Dayton's March 15 deadline arrives, and it's still far from clear whether a vote will come before the deadline.