By Mary Divine
It's time for the St. Croix River bridge project to move "out of the bureaucratic limbo that it has been in for 30 years," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar told a congressional subcommittee Thursday in Washington, D.C.
"It's time to break the deadlock," Klobuchar, D-Minn., told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's National Parks subcommittee. "We've waited long enough, and it's time to move forward."
Klobuchar testified on behalf of her bill, which would clear the way for a four-lane bridge south of Stillwater. The bill contains mitigation measures to offset the effects of a new $690 million bridge.
But Peggy O'Dell, deputy director for operations for the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, told the subcommittee that the Department of Interior could not support Klobuchar's legislation.
National Park Service officials last fall blocked construction of the proposed bridge, reversing an opinion issued five years earlier.
Klobuchar's bill "would have a direct and adverse impact on the river," O'Dell said. "We are very concerned about the precedent that this would set."
But O'Dell acknowledged that the mitigation efforts contained in Klobuchar's bill were within the spirit of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The mitigation plan would eliminate existing man-made structures, protect the river bluff, restore parkland and ensure public boat access.
"We thought it was really positive that they said that all the mitigation efforts were good and that it was within the spirit of the law," Klobuchar said after the hearing.
Stillwater is "between a rock and a hard place," said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a member of the subcommittee. "I want to make clear that this is a unique situation with unique needs, and that we are not declaring open season on the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act."
The St. Croix River was one of the first Wild and Scenic Rivers designated by Congress in 1968; the Lower St. Croix was added in 1972 through the efforts of the late Gaylord Nelson, who served as both Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, and former Minnesota Sen. and Vice President Walter Mondale.
Mondale submitted written testimony opposing the bill. "I believe the huge bridge that would be authorized by this measure is a brutal assault on one of the most magnificent rivers in America," he wrote.
Franken and Klobuchar both said they believed in preserving Mondale's landmark legislation.
"We want to preserve this act. We want to preserve the intent that Mondale and Nelson had," Franken said. "This will be the first bridge (allowed under the Act). It's really the exception that proves the rule. We don't want this to be an invitation to be a wholesale override of the Act, which has done its job for 40 years."
But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the ranking member of the subcommittee, questioned whether there was a problem with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
"When it takes from 1992 to now to get something done...there is a problem with the legislation," Paul said. "I understand the ode to Walter Mondale, but this really makes me think there is some problem with the legislation."
The idea for a new bridge over the St. Croix River near Stillwater first surfaced in 1951, when it became clear the Stillwater Lift Bridge eventually would not meet rising traffic demands.
Those in favor of a new bridge have argued that it is needed to address traffic congestion in downtown Stillwater and accommodate growth in western Wisconsin. Environmentalists have said a new freeway-style bridge would harm the federally protected riverway and encourage sprawl. Preservationists have been fighting to protect the lift bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It has been difficult to find a plan that is consistent with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Transportation Act of 1996 and the National Historic Preservation Act, said Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki, who drove with his family to Washington, D.C., to testify.
Harycki also serves as co-chairman of the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing.
"We believe the St. Croix River is an important natural resource that is recognized and protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act," he said. "Area residents support this designation and want to continue to protect the river from over-development. We support protecting historic sites throughout the region. But we also need a safe, reliable crossing."
He said the lift bridge was designed to handle 11,200 cars a day. "Today it is overburdened by an average of 18,400 vehicles daily," he said. "In the summer, traffic can jump to over 25,000 cars a day .... It is dangerously outdated."
Harycki criticized an alternate plan for a lower, narrower three-lane bridge that would cross the river diagonally from near the Oasis Cafe, just south of downtown Stillwater, to where the Stillwater Lift Bridge hits the bluff on the Wisconsin side of the river. The center lane would vary in direction depending on the time of day.
"It will be functionally obsolete upon opening," he said.
The architect of the alternate plan - called the Sensible Stillwater Bridge plan - also testified Thursday. Roger Tomten said he supports a new bridge across the St. Croix River, but "not the enormous freeway-style bridge" under consideration.
"To move this boondoggle bridge forward when our nation is locked in debate over spending and the state of Minnesota is coping with the effects of closing a $5 billion budget deficit makes no sense," he said. "My community of Stillwater needs a new bridge to replace the historic lift bridge, but the one prescribed in this bill is not the answer.
"It's too much bridge at too high a cost for my state and for my community and for the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway."