In June, we went on record on these pages in support of an imperfect solution to a real problem. The solution is a four-lane freeway-style bridge crossing the St. Croix River south of Stillwater that would help solve the town's longstanding traffic-congestion problems. It needed exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to allow the project to go forward.
The bridge, with an estimated price tag of $574 million to $690 million, took a major step toward construction Monday with approval in the U.S. Senate. The St. Croix River Crossing Project Authorization Act, spearheaded by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, was passed on a voice vote under a unanimous consent procedure used to expedite proceedings on legislation not considered controversial. That label belies the history of the long-delayed project, but we welcome the move nonetheless.
The new bridge would divert border-crossing traffic from downtown Stillwater onto State Highway 36 near Oak Park Heights. It would replace the Stillwater lift bridge - in service since 1931 - and cross the river five miles north of the Interstate 94 bridge crossing.
Long-running debate about the project took a major turn in 2010, when the National Park Service reversed an opinion it had issued five years earlier and ruled that the bridge would conflict with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Klobuchar's bill included measures to offset the effects of a new bridge and protect the beautiful river bluffs.
U.S. senators and governors from both Minnesota and Wisconsin have joined U.S. House members from the districts at either end of the bridge in supporting the exemption to allow the project move ahead.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a proponent of a smaller bridge, said compromise will be needed if companion legislation, sponsored by Rep. Michele Bachmann, is to win approval in the House. McCollum says a freeway-style span is "bad fiscal policy, bad transportation policy and bad environmental policy." Rep. Keith Ellison joins her in opposition.
We checked in Tuesday with some folks on both sides of the issue.
-- "What people don't realize is the amount of hard work Sen. Klobuchar put into this," said Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki. "Rep. Bachmann is putting in similar efforts."
Gov. Dayton and Sens. Klobuchar and Franken spent time in Stillwater "learning firsthand about the project and why it's the right bridge in the right location," Harycki said. He invites Reps. McCollum and Ellison to do the same.
-- Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel has "sincere appreciation for the strong bipartisan support for the project" and said he's hopeful for a similar outcome in the House.
-- Oak Park Heights Mayor David Beaudet, who opposes the bridge plan, said he is surprised the Senate would go forward without waiting for a request by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for a consensus bridge plan. To work toward resolution, he said, the parties "have to be instructed to attempt to define a solution that fits within Wild and Scenic Riverway laws."
-- Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers, an organization working to protect and restore the nation's rivers and streams, said the Senate action unnecessarily rolls back 40 years of protections for the St. Croix River and "tosses aside the very values that former Sens. Walter Mondale and Gaylord Nelson sought to protect when they designated the St. Croix as a Wild and Scenic River."
It's been noted that McCollum rarely breaks with her party. Here she did, though, and raised important concerns about the effect of the four-lane crossing and the traffic it will bring to such Highway 36 communities as North St. Paul, Maplewood and Little Canada.
Even so, we see the bridge proposal as an important link in our regional transportation network. We urge members of the Minnesota delegation to unite, to work hard to reach consensus and to bring the debate to a successful conclusion.