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Establishing a connection

Groups on both sides of the Stillwater Lift Bridge debate and people on both sides of the St. Croix River are waiting for government and legal decisions on a replacement project.

While they wait, traffic flows over a 73-year-old bridge between Stillwater, Minn., and Wisconsin’s St. Croix County. Local leaders say the span is inefficient and dangerous.

In the early 1990s, officials realized a new bridge was needed, but historical and environmental concerns – the St. Croix is protected under the federal Wild and Scenic River Act – kept delaying the project, said Gary Kriesel, Washington County, Minn., commissioner.

“The Stillwater Bridge is a choke point for traffic,” he said. “Cars get backed up and it leads to pollution, and some drivers cut through residential neighborhoods to make up their time.

“We have waited so long for this new bridge, and the longer we wait, the more the cost goes up.”

The cost is estimated at $582.3 million, and the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of transportation are asking the federal government for $300 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money to get the project started in 2010. Without that, the project would not begin until 2012. A decision on the grant request is expected in January.

Legal challenge

The replacement bridge would be the main Minnesota-Wisconsin crossing north of Interstate 94 and would divert thousands of daily commuters out of Stillwater’s historic downtown.

Todd Clarkowski, the St. Croix crossing team leader for the Minnesota DOT, said the project is unique because the process involves local governments, state governments, federal agencies, business groups and organizations concerned that a new bridge would damage the St. Croix. The planners began meeting in 2002 and by 2006 agreed on a strategy for the project.

Not everyone, however, is on board.

In 2007, the Sierra Club sued to stop construction of the new crossing, arguing it would destroy the river.

The Sierra Club and attorneys from state and federal agencies argued their sides before a federal judge in mid-September. As of deadline for this story, no announcement had been made about when a decision is expected.

The Sierra Club also filed a letter with the federal government requesting the project be denied stimulus money, said Jim Rickard, vice chairman of the Sierra Club’s St. Croix Valley Interstate Group.

“There are better alternatives of how this money could be spent to benefit more Minnesota residents,” he said. “We’re not against a replacement bridge. We just want to make sure every alternative has been discussed and that the ramifications of this new bridge are fully looked at.”

In the mid-1990s, the Sierra Club successfully sued to stop planning for a different project to replace the Stillwater Bridge. State and federal officials say the current project is much different from the one proposed then.

Ready and waiting

While waiting for the federal grant decision, the Minnesota and Wisconsin DOTs are preparing for the project and will be ready if it begins next fall, Clarkowski said.

Officials are not waiting for a decision on the Sierra Club lawsuit.

“We keep moving ahead,” Clarkowski said. “We’re acquiring the right-of-ways and laying groundwork for an $18 million mitigation project at the site of the new crossing that includes wetland replacement, relocate and transfer of endangered species and other issues.”

The Stillwater Lift Bridge is to be turned into a pedestrian and bicycle crossing when a replacement structure is built. Photo by Wm. Glasheen

The Stillwater Lift Bridge is to be turned into a pedestrian and bicycle crossing when a replacement structure is built. Photo by Wm. Glasheen

The new bridge, which would be downriver from the current bridge in Stillwater, will be an extradosed bridge, which calls for shorter towers with cables connecting the towers to the bridge deck. The St. Croix crossing would be only the second extradosed bridge in the United States.

“The stakeholders were given a lot of design options and they went with the extradosed bridge,” Clarkowski said. “Its lower profile will not overwhelm the area’s scenic beauty.”

Once the new bridge is built, the Stillwater Bridge will be turned into a pedestrian and bicycle crossing as part of a trail loop system.

“We’re excited that we’ll be able to retain the bridge as a piece of history in Stillwater,” Kriesel said.

The new bridge will be an economic shot-in-the-arm for the area, he said, and the project will create an estimated 2,970 construction jobs.

“Let’s put people to work,” Kriesel said, “and get this bridge built.”

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