National Park Service says 'no' to St. Croix River bridge

Stillwater lift bridge
The Stillwater lift bridge, in a 2007 file photo. A plan to build a new bridge spanning the St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin, to replace this structure, has been shot down by the National Park Service.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The National Park Service on Friday said a proposed bridge over the St. Croix River near Stillwater can't be built.

In a letter to the Federal Highway Administration, the park service said constructing the bridge would "fundamentally change the scenic qualities that existed when the St. Croix was designated a national wild and scenic river in 1972."

The park service said the proposed St. Croix River Crossing Project would have "direct and adverse effects that cannot be avoided or eliminated." By law, the National Park Service cannot approve any project that meets that description.

Chris Stein, park superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, says a re-examination of the area supported that finding.

"There's no way to eliminate the impact of proposed bridge on the scenic and recreational values -- why the river was established as a wild and scenic river to begin with," said Chris Stein, superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. "The National Park Service concluded we cannot consent to the project."

That means the project cannot move forward unless Congress takes action.

The bridge would have had four lanes. Supporters said it would divert traffic from the two-lane lift bridge in downtown Stillwater, preventing the traffic jams in town that have frustrated residents and local businesses. The lift bridge is nearing the end of its useful life.

The National Park Service's decision comes after a federal judge in March struck down the agency's approval of the bridge. The park service was ordered to complete another evaluation of the project.

In 2005, the National Park Service gave the green light for building the new freeway-style bridge over the St. Croix River. The St. Croix is part of the country's system of wild and scenic rivers, giving it special protection.

The Sierra Club, long a critic of the bridge design, filed suit.

Federal Judge Michael Davis noted in his March ruling that in 2005, the National Park Service performed an evaluation of the proposed bridge and characterized the bridge's visual effect as "dramatic and disruptive."

Then the park service did an about-face.

Judge Davis wrote in his ruling: "The National Park Service then inexplicably concluded that the new bridge would not directly and adversely affect the Lower St. Croix's outstandingly remarkable scenic and recreational values."

Judge Davis called the federal decision the hallmark of arbitrary and capricious decision making.

Sierra Club North Star chapter spokesman Jim Rickard said after that ruling that his group is not opposed to a new river crossing of some sort, just not the four-lane, freeway-style structure proposed by the Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation departments.

"We don't have to be designing a bridge for 80,000-pound trucks to travel at 65 miles per hour," Rickard said. "They have an alternative that's very viable, namely [Interstate] 94, and many of them are using that today."

"If we can come to grips on what is the standard we're designing for, we can find alternatives that will be much smaller in scale and still accommodate growth and significantly lower the price tag," Rickard said.

A proposed new crossing over the St. Croix river near Stillwater has been in the works for 50 years.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., whose district includes western Wisconsin, has said a smaller bridge is not a good idea, given growth predictions for eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin border counties.

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