Stillwater bridge vote stalled by inaction in Congress

Stillwater bridge
Stillwater lift bridge and downtown Stillwater, Minn. Sept. 28, 2011
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Efforts to authorize a replacement for the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge over the St. Croix River have run smack into the immovable object that is the U.S. Congress.

Bills sponsored by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, both of Minnesota, have the support of much of the political establishments of both Minnesota and Wisconsin. But neither Klobuchar nor Bachmann have been able to secure a floor vote in either chamber.

Up until a few weeks ago, lobbyist Bill Berndt was optimistic the measures would see action. Berndt, a former Wisconsin state legislator, has spent decades trying to get a new bridge built over the St. Croix -- most recently as the federal lobbyist for the Coalition for a St. Croix River Crossing.

But he says all the partisan sniping between Republicans and Democrats on the big issues of taxing and spending has slowed down lots of low-profile legislation such as these bills.

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"We're in the mix with probably hundreds of other issues and projects that are caught in the gridlock that's out in Washington," said Berndt.

Sen. Klobuchar concurred, saying that the pace of legislation has slowed dramatically this year.

Proposed bridge map
This satellite image shows the proposed route of a new St. Croix River bridge crossoing south of Stillwater, Minn.
Map courtesy MnDOT

"In the old days, like as in four years ago, a lot more bills were moving," she said.

When asked if Rep. Michele Bachmann's presidential run has made it harder for the bridge bill to get through the House, Bill Berndt responded with an emphatic "no." He said Bachmann has remained involved despite spending very little time in Washington since the summer.

"It isn't because our team somehow hasn't put in the time or the effort," Berndt said.

In a statement, Bachmann conceded that her bill wasn't likely to pass the House before the holiday recess, but said she was encouraged by the progress that had been made and was optimistic it would pass next year.

"I remain absolutely committed to the St. Croix River Crossing Project, and I will not rest until the St. Croix Valley can begin construction on a new bridge," Bachmann said.

Both the House and Senate bills would exempt this bridge from restrictions laid out in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. And the issue has sharply divided Minnesota's congressional delegation.

Bachmann and Klobuchar's bills are supported by DFL Sen. Al Franken, as well as Republican House members Chip Cravaack and John Kline.

But DFL Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison oppose the planned bridge, arguing it's too big and expensive.

But McCollum's opposition alone shouldn't be enough to sink the bills, according to Berndt.

"It's a fantasy to think you're going to have complete unanimity on any major project, and she's just one member of the delegation," he said.

Even if McCollum has been outnumbered, she scored a tactical victory last month when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood offered to convene a working group to hash out some sort of agreement on the bridge.

McCollum said she looks forward to working with Berndt and LaHood's group to address her concerns about the design.

"I hope the coalition is as excited as I am with this opportunity to sit down with Secretary LaHood and come up with a right-cost, right-scale bridge to meet the transportation needs of 18,000 cars a day. And I think we can do that," said McCollum.

But bridge backer Bill Berndt argues that group will only cover ground that's already been covered multiple times over the past few years.

"I believe that the working group idea, though well-intentioned, is not going to be effective," said Berndt. "The location, design have been chosen. This is the bridge that will either be approved or not."

MnDOT has already set aside money for this project and says if Congress can't authorize a new bridge, it will eventually have to shift that money to other road projects across the state.

Meanwhile, Klobuchar said she's still looking for opportunities to move her bill through the Senate.

"We always keep trying and there's always January, and I think that there will be bills moving in January so I remain optimistic," said Klobuchar.

If the delay gives supporters time to regroup, it does the same for opponents, with the only thing certain that the long debate over a new Stillwater bridge will go on even longer.