A bridge destined to change views and traffic patterns in the St. Croix River valley may soon move from drawing board to reality.
The U.S. House Thursday approved a bill authorizing construction of a new $700 million bridge a few miles downriver from the existing 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge.
The new bridge would span the federally protected St. Croix River between Oak Park Heights, Minn. and St. Joseph, Wis. Congress's action ends decades of wrangling over the project. The bill will be sent to the White House for the president's signature.
In downtown Stillwater, Cory Buettner said the new bridge will be good for business. Buettner owns Leo's Grill and Malt Shop, an iconic diner just a block from the Stillwater Lift Bridge. He hasn't just seen the daily traffic jams outside his shop window, his restaurant has had a few close calls.
"We've had traffic, a truck, tear off our awning in front of our restaurant. I've seen multiple accidents right out in front in our intersection," Buettner said. "I've seen close calls with children involved, and frankly, I think for the safety of the people and the visitors of Stillwater the new bridge will be the best solution to that problem is to move the traffic out of town."
When the lift bridge raises to let boats pass, traffic in downtown Stillwater comes to a standstill and often backs up for miles. The bridge also closes regularly for repair and maintenance.
Buettner is convinced that losing traffic won't mean losing business. In fact, he thinks business will get better for the town once the traffic is reduced. And the new bridge's plan calls for converting the lift bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle trail that will connect to other bikeways in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Buettner hopes it will bring even more visitors, and more tourist dollars, into downtown Stillwater.
People who have spent decades pushing for the new St. Croix River crossing say a new bridge is necessary to accommodate the commuters who live in western Wisconsin but work in Minnesota.
In a conference call with reporters following the House vote, John Soderberg, who co-chairs the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing that lobbied heavily for the new bridge, said it will benefit people on both sides of the river.
"It means so much to this region. It isn't a Stillwater issue so much. It's not a Wisconsin issue. It's a regional issue," Soderberg said.
Population in St. Croix County, the fastest-growing county in Wisconsin, has exploded in recent years. A recent Wisconsin government study predicts the county's population will double over the next 20 years.
Critics of the new four-lane highway bridge fear the project will spur even more development, fueling sprawl and generating even more traffic.
However, with or without a new bridge, the growth is already there, said Daryl Standafer, chair of the St. Croix County Board of Supervisors.
"I would not dispute the fact that it would certainly be an economic development opportunity for us," Standafer said. "But it is not a matter of: We're isolated, and if the bridge is built all of a sudden we are going to grow."
Even critics of the new bridge plan agree a new crossing is needed. But because the St. Croix River is protected under federal law, Congress had to grant an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act before a new bridge could be approved.
State Director of the Sierra Club Northstar Chapter Margaret Levin said that exemption opens the door to weakened regulations for the nation's other protected rivers.
"The current proposed bridge, in addition to the great cost, would also have impacts on water quality. It would also impact the surrounding landscape. We want to see the river protected," Levin said. "We support a new bridge and believe that a smaller bridge could better meet the needs of residents and balance the values that the St. Croix River provides to our community."
Sierra Club officials say they hope planners will still consider alternative designs for a smaller, cheaper bridge.
St. Croix County planners said their development plans will attempt to allow growth while preserving the rural character of western Wisconsin.
The cost of the new bridge will be divided between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Minnesota Department of Transportation expects the state's share to be around $380 million and Wisconsin's around $310 million.
Construction on a new span could begin as early as next year.