MPR News Primer: St. Croix River bridge

Last updated on October 8, 2012

After more than a decade of bitter politics and litigation, a federally approved plan is in place to build a new St. Croix River bridge to replace the aging span in Stillwater.

Why do we need a bridge?

The 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge has served as a vital connection across the St. Croix River. But now it's a choke point. When the Lift Bridge rises to let boat traffic pass on the river, cars back up into downtown Stillwater and along Minnesota Highway 36, creating all kinds of traffic congestion and hazards. Congestion crashes occur at twice the rate of a similar segment of roadway, the Minnesota Department of Transportation says.

It's a problem that's worsened the past 20 years. Towns across the bridge in St. Croix County, Wis., have grown dramatically and the county's population is expected to double over the next 20 years.

The bridge is also rusting.

Why did Congress need to be involved in building a St. Croix River Bridge?

The St. Croix River is protected by the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, so no bridge can be built unless Congress authorizes it. The new law grants an exemption to the act so that a four-lane replacement bridge can be built south of Stillwater near Oak Park Heights -- the first exemption to the act provided by Congress.

How much will it cost?

MnDOT currently puts the total cost at $580 million to $676 million, with Minnesota funding more than half the cost and Wisconsin the rest. It's expected to be paid for using regular state and federal highway funds from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Who supported it?

An unlikely ideological pair, Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and DFL U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, lead a coalition of politicians and businesspeople seeking the legislation and the four-lane bridge.

Bachmann and Klobuchar argued a new bridge would reduce congestion in the St. Croix River Valley and improve traffic safety in downtown Stillwater, where the antiquated Lift Bridge is the only nearby span.

Supporters say the plan preserves the river valley's beauty and protects the region's environmentally sensitive bluffs. They also argue the bridge plan has broad local support.

The bridge is "an incredible project that has incredible, bipartisan support," Bachmann said following the House vote sending the bill to the president.

Who was opposed?

The Sierra Club and other groups decried the size of the proposed four-lane span. The Sierra Club sought "a smaller, cheaper, and more environmentally responsible crossing ... One that addresses the concerns of residents such as congestion and safety, but also respects the fragile environment of the St. Croix River Valley."

The legislation's opponents included former Vice President Walter Mondale, who sponsored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act while in the Senate, and DFL Rep. Betty McCollum, who called the bridge plan a "monument to waste." It also counted detractors on the Wisconsin side.

McCollum "initially cast her opposition to a new bridge in terms of the impact on traffic in the region and concerns about setting a precedent for bypassing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act," MPR News reporter Brett Neely wrote in February, but "lately she's been criticizing the project's nearly $700 million price tag in an effort to woo fiscal conservatives."

Like McCollum, DFL U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison supported a new bridge but argued the one proposed was too big and too expensive. After the House backed the bill, Ellison again called the planned span "oversized and overpriced. Many bridges in our state need repair. Limited transportation funds should be used responsibly for projects throughout the state."

What happens next?

President Barack Obama signed the bridge bill into law on March 14.

MnDOT expects to start building the bridge foundations in 2013 -- a year earlier than initially forecast -- and finish in three years.

Jon Chiglo, the engineer who oversaw the Interstate 35W bridge replacement project in 2007-08 will lead the St. Croix bridge team.

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