Article by: Kevin Diaz

In a milestone for the St. Croix River bridge project, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved legislation on Monday night granting environmental clearances for the controversial crossing.

The $700 million bridge must now pass the House, where a similar bill has been stymied for the past year despite bipartisan agreement in support of the new span from numerous Minnesota and Wisconsin lawmakers as well as the states' governors.

"All I can do is declare victory in the Senate," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who shepherded the bill through a chamber where it had long been held up by a handful of lawmakers.

Prospects for quick action in the House remain unclear. The House bill has been spearheaded by Rep. Michele Bachmann, who until recently had been campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination.

But in the waning hours of the 2011 session of Congress, Bachmann's office indicated that House GOP leaders were poised to bring the legislation to the floor for final passage. Bachmann said on Monday that she looks forward to the next step. "I am confident that this bill will be brought up before the House and the proposed St. Croix River Crossing Project will become a reality," she said.

Timing is still critical. As state transportation officials face pressure to commit money to the bridge or use it for other projects, even a short delay could spell failure.

Despite broad bipartisan support, the proposed four-lane bridge has drawn objections from environmentalists, anti-pork groups and Tea Partiers who see it as a boondoggle akin to Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere."

Two Democrats opposed

Among those who have fought the project are Minnesota Democrats Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, who authored House legislation paring down the scope of the proposed bridge.

"It's no surprise that Senator Klobuchar's bill passed the Senate," McCollum said. "But in the House, we need to find a common sense compromise because a $700 million bridge across the St. Croix River is bad fiscal policy, bad transportation policy and bad environmental policy."

Much of the federal funding for the project has long been approved. The bills wending their way through Congress would provide the necessary waivers from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects rivers like the St. Croix from development.

But Klobuchar had to produce $8 million in previously allocated transportation dollars to close the deal, and Bachmann would have to do the same to get her bill through the House.

As it stands, the House version takes money from an Interior Department program and will need to be reconciled with the version the Senate passed on Monday.

Other obstacles remain

Mayor David Beaudet of Oak Park Heights said relocating utilities along Hwy. 36 to a new bridge could cost as much as $20 million. Finding that money in his city of about 4,500 residents would cost about $400 per resident per year for 20 years, he said.

The Legislature will have to find the money, he said, because "this is a regional project with regional significance."

Elsewhere, reaction was brighter. "This was certainly a huge hurdle that was cleared," said Mayor Ken Harycki in Stillwater, a city that has wanted to divert traffic congestion from the 80-year-old Lift Bridge for years. "Almost every citizen in Stillwater will be very excited on learning the news. This is a great day for us."

He did echo Beaudet's concern about finding money to relocate utilities.

U.S. lawmakers from Minnesota and Wisconsin cheered the Senate passage, including Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, who urged the House to "act quickly on this legislation so we can finally get this bridge built."

Klobuchar called it a "milestone" won only after convincing a few Senate holdouts, including Sen. Tom Coburn, an influential Oklahoma Republican. "Senator Coburn always has questions about legislation," said Klobuchar, who met with him personally to allay his concerns.

As for the prospects for prompt House action, Klobuchar said, "I would think when something goes through the Senate unanimously, that means something to the House."