A proposal for a new bridge over the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota cleared a major hurdle Thursday.
Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee overwhelmingly approved the bill, sending it to the full Senate. Thursday's action is a victory for proponents of the long-debated and controversial replacement for the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge.
The proposal would build a $690-million four-lane, freeway bridge about a mile downriver from Stillwater.
Supporters said the new span will handle more traffic and ease gridlock in scenic downtown Stillwater — which swells with visitors during the summer high season.
Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki is part of a coalition that favors the freeway-style span.
"We have an 80-year-old bridge that is undersized and can't handle the traffic, and can't handle the needs of not only the community but the needs of the metro region," Harycki said. "And it's about getting a crossing in place that will take care of the metro's needs for now and for the future."
Traffic has increased nearly tenfold since 1947 when 1,950 vehicles used the span. Recent inspections found corrosion and deterioration on the old bridge. MnDot officials say with regular maintenance and repairs the bridge remains safe for the nearly 18,000 vehicles that cross it each day, but they've imposed weight restrictions.
Lynda Anderson owns a shop near the Stillwater Lift Bridge. She hopes a new bridge gets built — she says relieving traffic downtown will be good for business.
"Because it's aggravating to hear the people, it's like 'Oh, my gosh, it took me 45 minutes to get down the hill. What's the problem here," Anderson said. "So they will not come back because they know that the traffic is terrible."
Opponents of the project would like to see a smaller, cheaper bridge.
Bill Neuendorf is an engineer and director of policy and advocacy at Transit for Livable Communities. He's concerned the bridge proposal moving through Congress would expand the freeway system and encourage sprawl in an environmentally sensitive area.
"We can still meet the needs. We can still get a new bridge that is safe; lets people cross and gets rid of downtown congestion, and still save hundreds of millions of dollars and those are dollars that can be spent in lots of other places right away," Neuendorf said.
Neuendorf's Sensible Stillwater Bridge coalition, which includes the Sierra Club, has proposed a smaller bridge that would cost about $394 million. Previous plans submitted to MnDot by the coalition were rejected.
James Hunt commutes from Somserset, Wis. across the river to his goldsmithing business in Stillwater. He's worried a freeway bridge will lead to unregulated development and spoil the St. Croix River.
"I love the river, I love it dearly. It's beautiful. And the fact that it's been limited in its development is a positive thing," Hunt said. "I think the other concern is obvious: that if we are concerned about urban sprawl, opening up this part of western Wisconsin will result in the fields disappearing and houses popping up."
But Hunt sees a new bridge as a necessary evil for the growing metro region. And he agrees a new bridge outside of town would ease traffic and make it easier for customers to spend money in Stillwater. Right now, he says, most drivers are just passing through.
"And if they are going to build it they might as well build a four-lane bridge, because 30 years from now they'll need a new bridge if they don't," Hunt said.
The legislation is expected to get strong support when it goes up for vote in the House and Senate. If Congress approves, construction could begin in 2014.