Debate heats up over St. Croix River bridge
By Mary Divine, St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Alaska had its Bridge to Nowhere. It's starting to look as though Minnesota and Wisconsin might be planning the bridge to never.
Progress on building a $668 million bridge across the St. Croix River stalled in October when the National Park Service -- reversing an opinion issued five years ago -- said the bridge should not be allowed because the river is protected by the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Only Congress could counter that decision.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Transportation says it can't do anything until a new governor is named. And the new St. Croix Bridge Coalition, formed to lobby Congress, just lost its leader.
Despite the obstacles, the coalition is mobilizing and plans to take its case to Washington in January.
"We need (the bridge) sooner rather than later," said William Rubin, executive director of the St. Croix Economic Development Corp. in Hudson, Wis., and a member of the coalition, which consists of business leaders and elected officials from both sides of the river.
"To paraphrase 'Caddyshack': 'I'd keep playing. I don't think the heavy stuff is going to come down for quite a while,'" Rubin said.
The new bridge, first proposed decades ago, would replace the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge as the main Minnesota-Wisconsin crossing north of Interstate 94 and divert thousands of daily commuters from Stillwater's historic downtown, routing them instead to Minnesota 36 through Oak Park Heights.
Supporters say a new bridge is needed to address traffic congestion in downtown Stillwater and accommodate growth in western Wisconsin.
The northern part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, above Taylors Falls, Minn., is one of the eight original rivers designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1968, as a result of legislation championed by Sens. Walter Mondale of Minnesota and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. The section from Taylors Falls to Prescott, Wis. -- which includes the site of the proposed bridge -- was added in 1972.
Because the river is protected under federal law, the Park Service gets to weigh in on any changes.
In 1996, the agency said "no" to plans for a new bridge. Then planners added several "mitigation items" to offset the bridge's effect on the river. The Park Service gave its blessing to those plans in 2005.
But in its recent analysis, the agency found that the bridge would "forever change the look of the river" and could not be approved, said Chris Stein, superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, which is an arm of the Park Service.
"In our evaluation, we obeyed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act," Stein said. "We obeyed the law -- that's all the Park Service can do. If the people want a bridge, only the U.S. Congress can pass legislation to build a bridge."
The Park Service's reversal on the project shocked people at MnDOT, which had hoped to begin construction in 2013.
"When you ask them to explain how they got from 'no' to 'yes,' you don't expect someone to go from 'yes' to 'no,' " said Adam Josephson, east area manager for MnDOT. "All we expected was for them to explain how they got to 'yes.' We did not have any idea that they would change their mind."
Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki said he and other bridge advocates feel as if they were "sold out" by the Park Service.
"First, they were against it; then they were for it; then they were against it again," Harycki said. "Their position seems to change with the administration in Washington. You don't expect the Park Service to be political."
The Park Service was asked to re-evaluate the project this year because U.S. District Judge Michael Davis said in March that the agency's 2005 approval ignored its contrary 1996 position. His ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club to block construction of the bridge.
So in April, Stein and other Park Service officials began a re-evaluation.
"We originally set out to better explain how the proposed mitigation package -- such as removing the mooring cells at the King Power Plant, removing the Terra Terminal Building and converting the historic Lift Bridge to a pedestrian/bicycle trail -- could allow the new bridge to be built," he said. "In the past, we believed we could do this."
But, Stein said, it quickly became apparent that they could not consent to the project "unless its adverse impacts to scenic and recreational values were eliminated -- not just partially offset," he said. "After we started looking at this more and more and reading (the law) over and over again, we all came to this conclusion that we should change our position on this. I think what it all boils down to is we were trying to be good neighbors -- but the law doesn't say, 'Try and be good neighbors.'"
MnDOT's Josephson said most of the work to prepare for the new bridge has been suspended, including right-of-way acquisition, relocating the historic Shoddy Mill and Warehouse buildings, load-testing for bridge piers, and final roadway design.
Some work, such as a scenic-overlook management plan and a Stillwater cultural-district illustrative study, "were both nearly complete, so we will finish those up," Josephson said.
MnDOT has spent $25 million getting ready for construction, but the rest of the project remains unfunded, Josephson said. MnDOT won't spend any more money or try to secure funding for the project until the next governor of Minnesota is announced.
"We're kind of in limbo until the administration settles down," Josephson said. "It is what it is at this point. We're hoping that the congressional route will be something that can work out and that the project can move forward again."
Scott Peterson, MnDOT's director of governmental affairs, said the project has changed quite a bit from what was originally proposed and is getting quite expensive.
"And we're still faced with some pretty serious challenges to getting authorization to build the bridge, so those are just a number of things that make it worthwhile to sit down with the next administration and talk over the barriers and the implications and plan our strategy from there," he said.
Meanwhile, the Stillwater Bridge Coalition -- which lost its leader when Jennifer Severson abruptly resigned a few weeks ago as executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce -- is not giving up.
"The river is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, but that doesn't mean that the economic viability of this region is going to be held hostage by it," said Gary Kriesel, a coalition member and a Washington County commissioner. "There is a greater environmental harm being caused without the new bridge. ... Traffic is backed up, and every neighborhood in Stillwater is being used as a detour route. This is a critical-need project. Somebody has to step up and say, 'If that bridge doesn't get built, what's the alternative?'"
Mondale, who owns a house on the river in Scandia, calls the St. Croix "a national treasure" and says his work to preserve it was among his proudest political accomplishments.
Talk of changing the law is infuriating, the former vice president said.
"Here we pass a federal bill creating a national river system and, as a part of that law, there are principles announced and rules put in place that give the preference to the river and the aesthetic values that are essential to keep the river as special and beautiful as it is," Mondale said. "And yet time and again, approaches are made to treat it as though it was just some sort of an advisory suggestion -- just some sort of expression of what someone would like or not. In fact, it's the law."
He said he was pleased with the Park Service's recent decision because "I know the pressure they were under."
As for any push to have Congress exempt the St. Croix from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Mondale said: "If they tried, I'd sure oppose it.
"If they start doing that to the federal river system, it could be the beginning of the end," Mondale said. "I ask people to just sit back -- go look at the river and see how nice it is and think about what would happen if they opened the floodgates here. It becomes more apparent every year that without that act, this would be a honky-tonk."
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press
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