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A Bridge Too Far?


From Bill Neuendorf, Policy & Advocacy Program Director

 “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the United States that certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.” -U.S. Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, October 2, 1968

The Scenic & Wild Riverways Act was created in 1968 with strong support by then-Minnesota senator Walter Mondale and Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. After construction of an unsightly and mammoth power plant along the river’s edge, Mondale pushed this legislation on behalf of local constituents so that such a disruption could never happen again along the banks of the St. Croix.

In the early 1970’s the Governors of both Minnesota (Wendell Anderson) and Wisconsin (Pat Lucey) recognized the potential for new development to harm the scenic beauty of portions of the St. Croix. Noting the importance of this riverway for the enjoyment of future generations, they requested federal protection to deter further obstructions to the river and to prohibit new improvements along the banks of both the Upper and Lower St. Croix. Forty-years later, Governors Dayton and Walker seem to have forgotten the need to preserve and protect these irreplaceable natural assets.

For decades, ideas have been tossed around regarding the aging lift bridge that leads from downtown Stillwater to rural Wisconsin. Visitors, travelers, and some business owners get upset at the traffic delays that occur in Stillwater’s historic downtown when the lift bridge is closed to vehicles so that boats may pass underneath. Delays are particularly noticeable during the peak tourism months.

After years of preliminary studies, Mn/DOT and WisDOT engineers settled on a mega-design that would replace the 2-lane local bridge with a massive 4-lane bridge that allows tourists and commuters to bypass downtown Stillwater at 65 mph. The proposed design was selected over more sensibly-sized options that yielded significant mobility and reliability improvements at far lower costs. This is may sound like good news for people who want to whip past Stillwater and for trucks who want to avoid the weigh station on the I-94 bridge, but for local taxpayers who foot the bill, it is a solution that is no longer grounded in reality. Several people question why such a monumental bridge needs to be built a mere 5-miles north of the existing I-94 interstate bridge that operates below capacity.

The legal troubles for this hulking highway bridge are due to its proposed location within the federally-protected scenic and wild river (one of only 165 in the U.S.). After several rounds of review and arbitration, the National Park Service (the federal agency that enforces the Scenic and Wild Rivers Act for the Lower St. Croix) rejected the current bridge proposal on the grounds that it was disproportionately-sized and would result in a negative impact to the scenic beauty of the river and immediate surroundings.

Based on this determination, some residents felt that Mn/DOT and WisDOT would revise the design to select a more appropriately-sized bridge that had less impact to the scenic beauty of the river and a smaller price tag. This is where fate takes a strange turn.

In recent weeks, several Minnesota Senators and Congressmen have been trying to drum up support to ignore the rationale behind the federal protection so that the over-sized bridge can be built. Governor Dayton has supported these efforts. The plan to exempt the mega-bridge from the federal protection has the support of some Stillwater officials and even more support from real estate and banking interests in western Wisconsin. These efforts have outraged residents who oppose the further destruction of the natural scenic beauty of the St. Croix riverway.

The current fervor of the U.S. legislators is particularly concerning when listening to the daily cries of record budget deficits in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. At this time of fiscal constraint, can Minnesota afford to buy the Hummer of bridges when a Chevrolet will get the job done for half the cost?

It is not as though other options don’t exist. In fact, there are numerous options available to resolve the maintenance and traffic capacity needs of the aging lift bridge. Several options would not only improve traffic flow across state lines but would do so in a manner that complies with the federal protections. Alternative designs and locations have been proposed to reduce the scope and scale of the proposed bridge. These alternatives recognize the context of the Stillwater and Oak Park Heights communities as well as the scenic beauty of the riverway. A smaller scale bridge reduces the cost to both MN and WI taxpayers while still providing area residents with a convenient crossing.

In short, is it time to replace the aging Stillwater lift bridge? YES!

Is it necessary for Minnesota to build a mega-bridge that will result in additional sprawl in rural Wisconsin? NO!

Can Minnesota afford a massively oversized bridge that drains precious financial resources away from other bridge projects that are more heavily used and that yield greater economic benefits to Minnesota? NO!

Can a smaller St. Croix bridge and additional bridge repair projects elsewhere in the state still put construction crews to work? YES!

Can a more-appropriately sized bridge still satisfy the travel demands of today and tomorrow? YES!


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I'm curious if anyone knows the benefit of a mega bridge for Minnesota? Why are we paying for more of the cost than Wisconsin where the benefit seems clear.

Remember you will be building a bridge for tomorrow.The state is dotted with short-sighted designs. Why build a bridge that cannot handle all traffic even 30 years from now. Do you want to build a bridge every 10 years? Is this another stall tactic.

Building a bridge for tomorrow would mean building a bridge largely for rail transit. When gas is $6 or $7 per gallon people will be screaming why we hadn't planned for more public transit. Perhaps a two lane bridge with rails first and car traffic as an after thought...? Certainly the excuses get weirder and weirder for this unnecessary bridge.

Let's remember the main point of the is bridge was to get through traffic out of downtown Stillwater. This means a high-level crossing, most of the cost of which is in the foundations and piers. You don't build a two lane bridge 120 feet off the water. Also, the proposed bridge is just upstream from the Alan King power plant. While a beautiful site, this is not the BWCA.

This issue requires a careful balancing of needs and wants. This simplistic and one-sided article doesn't do it justice.

My partner and I love to go over to Western Wisconsin to ride our bikes on the relatively quiet roads over there. If a larger bridge opened up that area for development, it's rustic character will be lost. I'm also concerned what the added development pressure would do to the affordability of farmland for the small family farmers over there, many of whom are CSA farmers serving the Twin Cities markets. A small bridge helps protect them.

Thanks for this great piece on the massive now $690 million mile long, high speed four lane freeway bridge over the St Croix south of Stillwater and within sight of the now 8-lane I-94 bridge. And no transit provisions!!!!

Folks need to contact Senators Klobuchar and Franken and urge them to back off their Senate legislation, pushed in the House by Cong Michelle Bachmann, to wreck a huge hole in the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to allow the mega bridge to go ahead.

Protection of the national, natural treasure that is the St Croix National Scenic Riverway is former U. S. Senator/Vice President Walter Mondale's legacy, along with former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson.

This monster bridge would mar the scenic character of the valley, and create a surge in suburban sprawl into western Wisconsin destroying farmland, wetlands and water quality and wildlife habitat, increasing commuting driving and greenhouse gases that cause global warming. And it way too expensive.

Klobuchar and Franken should be urging Gov Dayton and the MNDOT to seriously consider the smaller, much cheaper, less obtrusive alternative.

Thanks so much for all the efforts of TLC on this issue.

Tom Clarke

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