WASHINGTON - A large delegation from the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the St. Croix River was in Washington yesterday and today to press Congress for legislation allowing the construction of a new span over the river.
While there's near-universal consensus that the historic lift bridge is obsolete and a traffic bottleneck, the St. Croix River is protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act which makes building a replacement complicated. Congress must authorize exemptions to the law, which is far from simple.
Bill Berndt should know. The former Wisconsin lawmaker has been working on and off on the Stillwater Bridge issue since 1984.
"Is there a finish line? You bet there is. And are we close? We feel we are," said Berndt, who's now the federal lobbyist for the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing.
The open question is what legislative path that authorization will take. There are standalone bills in the House and Senate, introduced by Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sen. Amy Klobuchar respectively. Both bills had successful subcommittee hearings but have not had hearings from the full committees that refer legislation to the floor of each chamber.
The issue has the support of all four U.S. Senators from Minnesota and Wisconsin, both states' governors and almost all of the U.S. House members whose districts are nearby. The lone standout is DFL Rep. Betty McCollum who argues that the planned replacement bridge is too large and too expensive.
Congressional sources say that Bachmann has agreed to use Klobuchar's language, which will speed up the process if there's no difference between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Bachmann's language would have, in essence, ignored the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act while Klobuchar's language makes it clear that authorizing the bridge constitutes an exemption the act and must include environmental mitigation measures.
With Congress frequently deadlocked, many bills have been stuck in legislative limbo this session. One House staffer for a Minnesota member said a likely approach would be for language authorizing a new bridge to be attached to one of the "must-pass" bills Congress takes up this fall. But so far, no Congressional office has confirmed plans to go that legislative route.
When asked about whether he preferred the bill move through Congress on its own or as part of broader legislation, Berndt said, "We'll take a victory any way it comes."
The other obstacle facing the bill is time. Gov. Dayton had initially set a soft deadline of Sept. 30 for Congress to act before he directed MNDOT to begin allocating the funds set aside for a new bridge to other construction projects. Dayton's office referred requests for an update on that deadline to MNDOT, which has not responded to multiple requests for clarification from MPR News
Berndt appeared unconcerned about the Sept. 30 deadline, saying that significant progress had been made since the deadline was set and that Congressional action was imminent.
"I would anticipate that you're going to see some action very soon," said Berdnt. "I wouldn't be surprised that given the schedule that is up, October will be an awfully crucial month for us."