As preparations for a new St. Croix bridge move forward, a group that successfully lobbied for the bridge project is not stopping work.
The Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing group has a long list of backers who have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the effort, including cities and counties on both sides of the river and some of the most prominent business leaders and companies in the St. Croix River Valley.
The coalition formed two years ago with a simple mission: to clear the way for a new highway bridge between Minnesota and Wisconsin. In March 2012, supporters of a new river crossing got their wish. President Barack Obama signed legislation allowing the project to move forward at a cost between $580 million and $676 million.
After decades of failed efforts, the lobbying paid off this time, said coalition director Larry Dowell.
"We had a job to do and that was to garner the state and federal approvals including an act of Congress and the president's signature and ensuring the resources in both Wisconsin and Minnesota were available to make the project possible," Dowell said.
Despite the high profile work of the coalition, it is difficult to find out who its members and contributors are. Dowell would not release a list of the coalition's 82 donors and members.
The coalition reports raising and spending $300,000 since its founding. Dowell said 85 percent of that came from individuals or businesses, and the rest from the public sector. Tax forms show members of the organization also pay annual dues of $100.
MPR News confirmed that one of the private sector contributors was Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater.
Hospital president Curt Geissler also sits on the coalition's board. Geissler said the hospital donated between $1,000 and $10,000 last year to help lobby for a new bridge. The existing 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge, he said, is not reliable.
"When the bridge is closed we actually have to put another ambulance crew in western Wisconsin 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Geissler said.
That costs the hospital about $1,200 daily, Geissler said. He hopes the project will improve emergency response time. His ambulances serve several hundred miles between North St. Paul, Scandia, Somerset and Interstate 94 on both sides of the river.
"It's difficult in a rural setting sometimes for a multiple-car accident to get enough responders quickly," Geissler said.
“It is about travel time but it's more about safety. We have employees that roll their windows down and take off their seatbelts because they are afraid that that bridge may go down,”Laurie Bauer, Andersen Windows
Another contributor to the coalition is Andersen Windows. Spokesperson Laurie Bauer said the company donated $20,000 to the coalition because half of its 3,000 employees in Bayport and Oak Park Heights commute every day across the St. Croix.
"It is about travel time but it's more about safety. We have employees that roll their windows down and take off their seatbelts because they are afraid that that bridge may go down," Bauer said. "And it adds at least a half-hour of time on peoples' travels if they have to go around the bridge."
Cities and towns along the river in Wisconsin and Minnesota also gave money. Some opponents of the bridge and several Stillwater council members were unhappy about taxpayer funds going to a group whose bylaws, contributors and expenditures are not available to the public.
Last fall, such objections led to the coalition returning $80,000 to the city of Stillwater after the state auditor found the donation violated state tax laws. The city has since legally contributed $10,000 to the group.
St. Croix County in Wisconsin contributed $20,000 to the coalition. Administrator Patrick Thompson said the county has much to gain from a new bridge in terms of future development and less congestion. He said supporting the group is still necessary, even though the project has been approved.
"It's a complicated project. We have two states that are involved and two departments of transportation," Thompson said. "There needs to be coordination at a pretty high level and the coalition is fulfilling that role."
New Richmond's First National Community Bank also gave between $5,000 and $8,000. The contribution was in the bank's financial interest, said John Soderberg, bank chairman and co-chair of the coalition.
"New Richmond probably will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this effort because it's going to tie in with our four-lane highway that will go now directly into the Twin Cities and Stillwater," Soderberg said. "People are going to be looking to move to Wisconsin to live in the St. Croix Valley and to enjoy the things that we have over here, the rolling hills and such."
In the past, Soderberg said, the need to exempt the project from the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, lawsuits and other hurdles held up the decades long campaign for a new bridge.
"We'd kind of get up to the altar, so to speak and the bride wasn't there," Soderber said.
Coalition representatives said the group will continue to fundraise and advocate for the new bridge until all necessary permits are in and construction is underway. Construction is expected to begin in spring 2013 and will take approximately three years to complete.
According to the coalition's IRS tax forms, if and when the group disbands, any remaining assets will be given to the state to pay for maintenance of the Stillwater Lift Bridge, which will become a bike and pedestrian bridge once the new St. Croix span is complete. The Stillwater Lift Bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.