This summer, people in Oak Park Heights may see engineering crews out testing the soil that will eventually support a new bridge over the St. Croix River.
The four-lane span, which could cost as much as $676 million, will replace the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge. Minnesota Department of Transportation officials hope to begin construction late next year, earlier than first planned.
Residents of Oak Park Heights, where city leaders oppose the project, got the opportunity to question officials Wednesday evening in the first of a series of public forums.
The bridge has been discussed for decades, but now the reality is finally sinking in for Gerri and Jim Rosemeyer, who live on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix. Of Oak Park Heights' 4,700 residents, they are among the closest to the bridge site.
"We are on the south edge of Sunnyside Townhomes," Jim Rosemeyer said. "Our house will be in the shadow of the bridge."
The Rosemeyers say they welcome the bridge because it will relieve traffic congestion in nearby Stillwater. But Gerri Rosemeyer says there are downsides.
"Living on the river, it's just so beautiful. We're boaters. We have a lot of boater friends," she said. "The disruption for many years. Noise. Mainly the noise. We have such a peaceful valley area, and I think we're just going to miss the quietness."
Oak Park Heights city leaders have concerns that go beyond noise and scenery. Councilman Mike Runk said bridge planners left much of the responsibility for some of the roads around the bridge to the community. Add costs to relocate water and sewer lines, and Runk said it could total $20 million.
"Not only the initial cost of the utilities, but also the potential upkeep," Runk said. "One of the plans is to turn the service lanes over to us, turn the trails back to us. And we would be responsible for maintenance and signalization of those."
Because the new St. Croix River Crossing Project will benefit the entire region, Runk said those costs should be distributed.
Oak Park Heights Mayor David Beaudet opposes the project in general and said if these issues are not resolved the city may decline to grant its consent to proceed.
"I think if we can't agree, then it's going to delay perhaps two or three years," Beaudet said. "And whether the project will be still sustainable, it's unknown."
But bridge planners are determined to press forward. MnDOT said federal money is available to cover 80 percent of the utility relocation costs. And MnDOT project manager Jon Chiglo said not all of the expenses that city leaders cite are necessary for the bridge.
"They have a number of scenarios in terms of their estimate, and I'm not doubting what their costs are," Chiglo said. "What I'm saying is those costs are not all driven by the construction of this project."
One MnDOT estimate indicates the cost to Oak Park Heights would be less than $1 million, not $20 million as city officials claim. This week the agency announced an accelerated construction schedule for the St. Croix bridge, with work set to begin in late 2013. The bridge could open to traffic by late 2016.
Approval of the project required the blessing of Congress and President Barack Obama for an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but its final hurdle may be a small-town Minnesota mayor and four city council members.
MnDOT and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation will hold another public forum on the project April 23 at Oak Park Heights City Hall. There will be two additional public forums in May in Stillwater.