Bridge battle reaches out to Mower

Published 7:07 am Friday, July 22, 2011

A battle over how and whether to build a new bridge connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin at Stillwater, has spilled over to Mower County.

For at least 15 years, plans have been in the works to bridge the St. Croix at the popular Stillwater crossing point. The latest version of the plan calls for an approximately $690 million, four-lane interstate-style structure — a considerable change from the scenic Lift Bridge that has carried traffic between the states for 80 years.

But the four-lane bridge project has plenty of opponents. Some Stillwater businesses believe it would funnel traffic right past their town; conservationists decry the proposed bridge’s impact on the scenic river valley; and some who just plain oppose spending too much money think the project is overkill.

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The new Sensible Stillwater Bridge Partnership has proposed a scaled-down version of the bridge that it says would save $407 million — money which it argues could then be used for Minnesota’s many other deficient bridges.

And that’s where Mower County comes in. The Partnership points to our county as a potential beneficiary of money saved by building a smaller-scale Stillwater bridge.

As a series of Austin Daily Herald stories reported earlier this year, an unusually high percentage of Mower County bridges are considered deficient and long-term funding issues have made it difficult for the county to keep up with needed bridge maintenance.

In its press releases touting the advantages of a scaled-down bridge, the Partnership specifically points to Mower, Pipestone and Sibley counties as among those that would benefit from money not spent at Stillwater. Either version of the bridge would be built with a combination of Minnesota, Wisconsin and federal tax money.

The Stillwater bridge has been a bit of a political football for as long as the idea has existed. Because of the St. Croix River’s status as a wild and scenic river, the National Park Service effectively has veto authority over the bridge project. In 1996, during the Clinton presidency, the Park Service blocked plans for a four-lane bridge. Then in 2005, George W. Bush’s presidency, it changed course and approved the bridge. In 2010 it again changed course and ruled that the bridge would have an adverse effect on the river’s scenery and ecology.

Part of the Partnership’s pitch for a scaled-down bridge is that its three-lane design would be smaller, closer to the river surface and, in general, no more than is needed to handle projected traffic levels.

Even as it has spilled over to Mower and other distant counties, the bridge battle has caught the attention of the national press. In an article about major spending projects that are being pushed by Republicans who have said they seek to cut federal spending, The New York Times this week highlighted Rep. Michele Bachmann’s role in supporting the large-scale Stillwater bridge project. It also has support from Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy, elected last fall with other candidates who ran on an anti-spending platform.

For those who love freeways and concrete, the original bridge plan — which would span the St. Croix high atop a bluff — probably looks pretty good. But for those who believe that encouraging high speed and increased motor vehicle traffic at a time of diminishing fuel supplies is a bad idea, the smaller bridge project seems to make sense. As it does for those who love scenic rivers, and for those of us who truly do oppose the idea of excess government spending.

Either way, it would be a major project with the promise of many construction jobs and improved traffic flow.

Whether Mower County’s bridges would receive any benefit from savings in Stillwater is hard to say. Certainly in theory Minnesota tax money not spent bridging the St. Croix would go into the pool of money available for bridge projects elsewhere, possibly including Mower County. But there are many potholes, including the state’s generally awful financial situation, between Stillwater and Mower County.