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Should Congress allow construction of a proposed $690 million Stillwater bridge? (Wrap-up of the 6/6-6/9 Debate)

Posted at 2:32 PM on June 10, 2011 by Michael Caputo

Seems as though Henry "Scoop" Jackson, that old warhorse in the United States Senate, understood today's controversy over building a new bridge over the St. Croix River back in 1972.

Almost 40 years ago Congress designated 52 miles of the lower St. Croix River a "wild and scenic" river that would limit development. At the time, Jackson, a Senator from Washington, said that stretch of the St. Croix was one of the last "relatively unspoiled" river regions lying near a major metropolitan area. Jackson went on to say:

"Ironically, it is this accessibility which places in jeopardy the features which make this river an outstanding natural resource, and which makes it imperative that the river quickly receive protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act."

Those who want to block the construction of a new $690 million span over the St. Croix River think Jackson had it right ... and are glad that the "Wild and Scenic Rivers Act" stands in the way of that bridge.

But those who want to replace the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge are seeking congressional approval to exempt the project for the federal act that now blocks the project. That support is becoming bipartisan with Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and DFL Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton both voicing support for it.

The Insight Now online debate on whether to clear the way for the new bridge featured the mayor of Stillwater, Ken Harycki (a backer of the new bridge) and Chair of the St. Croix Valley Interstate Group, Carol Hardin (who is fighting against the project).

These two debaters laid out their positions clearly in this audio discussion I had with MPR's All Things Considered host, Tom Crann (click the audio link just below to listen).

A question of safety

As Crann and I spoke about in the audio discussion, the argument of safety has long been used by those who want a new bridge. They see the crowded lift bridge as a bottleneck for emergency vehicles to get from one side of the St. Croix to another. And, of course, they worry about the safety of the old lift bridge itself.

But more recently it's the opponents of the bridge project that use safety as a reason not go forward with the current proposal. State Asssembly member in Wisconsin, Brett Hulsey, D- Madison, says spending so much money on one bridge makes no sense when so many other bridges in Wisconsin and Minnesota need repairs. To make his case, Hulsey uses a March 2011 study done by a group advocating transportation reform, Transportation for America.

Mayor Harycki says this argument is a red herring. The pots of money that the federal government, Minnesota and Wisconsin would use for the new bridge would not be taken from other bridge improvement projects. Another commentator in this debate pointed out the study cited by Hulsey lists the Stillwater Lift Bridge as deficient. So building the new bridge would be a step in meeting the goals of improving bridge travel overall.

Can't we drive down the middle?

Some who commented seem bewildered by what they see as an inability for the two sides in this debate to compromise.

When asked to give an under-reported side of this bridge issue, Martha Gerkey, a Stillwater resident since 1982, said: "'The middle path' approach to finding the solution."

Gerkey added:

"People on the extreme ends of the spectrum just keep harping, while the majority would like a common sense, environmentally respectful solution. I feel this is just the way all of our political leaders and 'cause' leaders are operating right now - each side being unreasonable and not looking for the common good."
This sentiment was shared by some others who responded to questions about the new bridge proposal.

That got the attention of Mayor Harycki:

"The planners and stakeholders met for more than three years to create a plan that balances environmental, traffic safety, economic development, historic preservation, river use, and regional needs. The project that is supported by two Governors, four U.S. Senators, members of Congress and the Minnesota and Wisconsin legislatures is not MnDOT's plan. It is our community's vision."
In other words, what more could we do to reach consensus?

Does it benefit Wisconsin too much?

Bill Coleman, a Mahtomedi resident who works in regional economic development, took a rather competitive slant to this bridge project. Why, he wondered, should Minnesota spend the money to improve access to Wisconsin if it makes it easier for Wisconsin to lure away businesses from Minnesota?

Mark Hay of Wisconsin said there is no way to argue that the bridge only serves Wisconsin needs. "Saying it only serves Wisconsinites to build a new crossing is ... ridiculous," Hay wrote. "There are an awful lot of MN license plates running around northern St. Croix county."

Others saw a negative impact for Wisconsin that would result from a larger bridge: sprawl.
J.P. Rennquist lives in Duluth, but he joined this debate because he worries that the price paid for the bridge will be widening sprawl in Wisconsin. Others contend that the bridge isn't contributing to choice of where people live.

Take a look at the full debate and see what threads you can pull from it.

THE DEBATE IN FULL - The Assertion: Expanding college admissions will downgrade college standards.

Tuesday - Opening Statements

Wednesday - Rebuttals

Thursday - Rebuttals

Friday - Closing Statement

June 2011
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