House passes St. Croix River bridge bill; sends to Obama

Bridge to never?
This undated artist rendering released by the Minnesota Department of Transportation shows an aerial view looking west that shows the proposed St. Croix River Crossing between Oak Park Heights, Minn., and St. Joseph, Wis.
AP Photo/Minnesota Department of Transportation

The U.S. House of Representatives Thursday approved a bill to authorizing a new, nearly $700 million bridge over the St. Croix River near Stillwater, Minn.

The House action means that after years of contentious debate, a replacement for the aging lift bridge that connects Minnesota and Wisconsin is just a presidential signature away from becoming reality.

Given the years of planning that have gone into the bridge project, not to mention the delays and legislative wrangling in Washington that pitted members of Minnesota's congressional delegation against one another, the 339-80 vote felt quick and anticlimactic.

Congress' involvement was necessary because the St. Croix River is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, legislation authored by former DFL Sen. Walter Mondale.

Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, who represents the Stillwater area, was euphoric about the final vote tally, which included support from six of Minnesota's eight U.S. House members. She blamed the long process on what she describes as the unchecked power of "radical" environmentalists.

"In 1992, it was all systems go and we were going to build this bridge for $80 million dollars, and then the Sierra Club came in and said this was visual pollution," Bachmann said. "Visual pollution."

Bachmann introduced a House bill to authorize a bridge, while the legislation approved Thursday was actually authored by DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Klobuchar managed to secure the unanimous consent of the Senate to pass the bill in that chamber in January. She credited the power of bipartisan cooperation, to explain why the legislation finally passed.

And we really worked together, Republicans, Democrats, Wisconsin, Minnesota, in a way that had never happened before," Klobuchar said.

Not everyone worked together.

DFL Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison held out against two governors, four U.S. Senators and more than a dozen House members from Minnesota and Wisconsin to argue that the planned bridge was too large and expensive, potentially draining maintenance funds from other bridges in Minnesota.

They also argued that exempting the new span from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act would substantially weaken the future efforts to protect the nation's rivers.

The acrimony between McCollum and Bachmann on the issue spilled on to the House floor during debate on the bill Wednesday evening.

"And today, Congresswoman Bachmann has been successful in bringing this earmark to the floor," McCollum said.

"If Rep. McCollum gets her way, she will kill building the bridge over the St. Croix River," Bachmann said.

DFL Sen. Al Franken has credibility with environmentalists. With him on board with the planned bridge, the task of convincing other legislators to oppose the plan was made more difficult.

The AFL-CIO labor union lobbied hard among Democrats to support the bridge, arguing it would employ construction workers.

Reflecting on the long debate, Ellison said the consensus that the Stillwater Bridge needed to be replaced trumped discussion about the best way to replace it.

"People like myself and Betty McCollum are like, "what a minute, let's not just get anything done, let's get something done right," Ellison said. "And I think at the end of the day, the more expedient political position just won out."

Ironically, the newly drawn political boundaries have moved Stillwater out of Bachmann's congressional district and into McCollum's district. McCollum's determined opposition to the bridge may be an electoral liability there next November.

Asked earlier this week if redistricting had changed her opinion about the project at all, McCollum said no.

"My job is to do oversight, my job is speak up and speak out when I think something could be done in a more cost-effective and better way and I'm doing my job," McCollum said.

Bachmann and Klobuchar both say the Obama administration has signaled that the president plans to sign the legislation.

If the bill is signed, construction on the bridge is set to begin next year and should be completed by 2016, said officials with Minnesota Department of Transportation.

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