The Stillwater Bridge project, already in the shadow of an environmental lawsuit, missed out on $300 million in stimulus money that would have fueled a construction start this year.
Instead, the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of transportation will continue planning for a 2013 start, said MnDOT spokeswoman Mary McFarland Brooks. The bridge spans the St. Croix River and connects Stillwater, Minn., to Houlton, Wis.
But even that start date is in jeopardy as the agencies and the Sierra Club await a federal judge’s decision in a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed over the project plans.
“We’re not against a new bridge,” said Jim Rickard, vice chairman of the Sierra Club’s St. Croix Valley Interstate Group. “We just don’t support the current design. We would love to partner on alternative designs.”
The Sierra Club in 2007 filed the suit, arguing construction would destroy the St. Croix River, which is recognized by the federal Wild and Scenic River Act. Michael Davis, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, heard the case in September.
WisDOT and MnDOT are proposing a four-lane bridge about 3,000 feet south of the existing lift bridge, which was built in 1931 and not designed to support the level of traffic it carries today.
McFarland Brooks said the bridge was re-decked in 2005 to support increased traffic, but the structure is stressed. According to the most recent traffic counts, from 2006, the bridge carries more than 18,000 vehicles per day.
“It’s fracture critical,” McFarland Brooks said. “If one component of it would fail, it could begin other failures.”
Had the federal government approved the $300 million in grants for the project, McFarland Brooks said, construction of the bridge would have started this year.
Calls to the U.S. Department of Transportation seeking an explanation for why the project did not receive stimulus money were not returned.
Now, MnDOT, WisDOT and the Federal Highway Administration must wait until 2013 for the money to become available. Minnesota’s share of the project is about $379.7 million, while Wisconsin will kick in $288.8 million.
But if the Sierra Club wins the lawsuit, project planners could end up redesigning the bridge. McFarland Brooks said it might not push the project all the way back to square one, but it would be a setback.
Some project approvals might carry over to a new design, but, she said, the extra work could push the start date beyond 2013.
State Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse, said it’s disappointing the project has to remain on the back burner for three more years, but he’s confident in the plan the two states put forward.
“I don’t think local legislators should second guess the work that’s been done to this point,” he said. “We should work with the DOTs to help them move forward.”
But, Rickard said, he’s not surprised the project missed out on the stimulus money.
“The government wanted innovative projects,” he said. “There’s nothing innovative about the bridge they designed.”