Members of Congress went home for the holidays without taking action on long-sought federal environmental approval for a new St. Croix River crossing.
Minnesotans involved in the wrangling say this latest delay doesn't change much — they're still debating what kind of bridge to build.
Up until a few weeks ago, congressional action on the proposal for a new St. Croix bridge looked likely. The bipartisan bill cleared a major Senate hurdle last month, and was awaiting floor votes by the House and Senate. But the current impasse is yet another delay for the project, which has taken years to get this close to approval.
Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki is part of a coalition pushing for a new span to replace the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge.
"The finish line is in sight," Harycki said. "To a certain extent it would have been nice to have it wrapped up in 2011 but if it spills over into 2012, so be it. We've been waiting 50 years to get to this point so we'll just keep working hard to keep educating the public on the need for the project."
The St. Croix River Crossing legislation calls for a $690 million, four-lane, freeway bridge between Minnesota and Wisconsin. On the Minnesota side, the bridge would originate in the small city of Oak Park Heights, which has a population of about 4,500.
The delay in Congress hasn't changed Oak Park Heights Mayor David Beaudet's views on the bridge. He'd rather see a tunnel.
The current bridge proposal, he said, would cost Oak Park Heights around $14 million over the next 20 years to relocate utilities, traffic signals and other infrastructure.
"I'm opposed to the current proposal," Beaudet said. "First of all, it violates the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; second of all, it has no positive impacts on the city of Oak Park Heights. We need a project that improves the safety and function of the transportation and protects the river."
Both the House and Senate bills would exempt the new bridge from restrictions under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which aims to protect certain rivers.
If the legislation is signed into law, Beaudet would like MnDOT to pay for most, if not all, of the cost to move city utilities.
Adam Josephson, MnDOT's east metro manager, said the city's cost estimates are much higher than MnDOT's assessment. Josephson said the agency is working with city engineers to determine which utilities must be moved and how much relocation will actually cost. Under the current plan, federal dollars would cover 80 percent. The rest would be covered by the city.
"I am sure it will take the better part of this winter to get through those discussions," Josephson said. "We need to look at each and every utility the city has in the right of way and determine if it is or is not impacted and then how does the city want to resolve that impact."
Josephson said the agency is also looking at financing options to help the city cover its share of any relocation costs. Further congressional inaction could delay construction on a new St. Croix bridge, MnDOT officials say. Right now, construction is scheduled to begin in 2014. That's the same year federal and state funds for the project expire.
MnDOT officials say with regular maintenance and repairs, the 80-year-old bridge remains safe for the nearly 18,000 vehicles that cross it each day. But they have imposed weight restrictions.