Wisconsin lawmakers’ push to boost bonding authority for the Stillwater Bridge project is clashing with a group’s claim that the plan is too costly and threatens the environment.
“Replacing the bridge should be a priority,” said Jim Rickard, vice chairman of the Sierra Club’s St. Croix Valley Interstate Group. “But a $680 million replacement should not be a priority. All of us should be questioning fiscal responsibility right now.”
Rickard said a bill by Wisconsin lawmakers to increase bonding authority to $300 million for the state’s share of the estimated $680 million replacement is a bad move.
State Rep. Ann Hraychuck, D-Balsam Lake, disagrees. She said the investment is important to residents in northwest Wisconsin and the project cannot continue to wait.
“We’ve been having conversations about replacing that bridge for 50 years,” she said. “Our intent is to continue in the agreed upon partnership with Minnesota and show that we’re still willing to put in the money.”
Wisconsin in its last state budget authorized $225 million in bonding authority for a bridge replacement project. But the budget allows Wisconsin to take on the debt only if it received $75 million in federal stimulus grants for the project. That money never came, and as the law stands, the state cannot access the money until it does.
Hraychuck is the lead sponsor of a bill that erases the $75 million federal stimulus requirement and instead adds it to the already approved bonding authority.
Wisconsin is expected to contribute $300 million to the project, Hraychuck said.
Minnesota’s contribution is expected to be roughly $379.7 million.
The existing lift bridge, built in 1931, spans the St. Croix River between Houlton, Wis., and Stillwater, Minn. According to the most recent traffic counts, from 2006, the bridge carries more than 18,000 vehicles per day and was not designed to carry those heavy loads.
Neither Wisconsin nor Minnesota Department of Transportation representatives returned calls for comment on the project before deadline. They have said that despite a redecking in 2005 to support increased traffic, the structure remains stressed.
According to the MnDOT Web site, MnDOT, WisDOT and the Federal Highway Administration in the 1980s began planning for a replacement. In 1996, the National Park Service ruled that the proposed design would harm the St. Croix River and the project failed to get the necessary permits.
WisDOT and MnDOT then proposed a four-lane bridge about 3,000 feet south of the existing bridge. That plan gained NPS approval in 2007, but the Sierra Club filed suit later that year, claiming the park service did not give adequate reason for its approval.
Michael Davis, chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, last month blocked construction until the park service provides an environmental impact statement on the project.
That statement is expected this summer, Rickard said.
“We’re hopeful they’ll stick to their 1996 decision,” he said. “Our position all along has been we believe a new bridge is needed. But we believe a smaller design can be made that meets the needs and is much cheaper for both states.”
He said the Sierra Club does not have any designs to offer.
“We’re not bridge designers,” he said. “But if it’s smaller scale and uses less material, my guess is it would have less impact on the environment and cost.”
Regardless of the park service’s statement this summer, Wisconsin must make sure its contribution to the project is ready, said Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin.
“It’s a necessary and vital project,” he said. “Any time you increase bonding authority, there’s a chance that it will affect other projects in the state, but this project has taken close to forever to do. I don’t think increasing debt is a reason we should stop moving forward on this.”