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Stillwater bridge review stuck in Washington

Plans to replace the nearly 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge between Wisconsin and Minnesota are in limbo after a federal judge sought further review and blocked the proposal. A rendering of the proposed $680 million bridge is seen above. (Rendering submitted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation)

Plans to replace the nearly 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge between Wisconsin and Minnesota are in limbo after a federal judge sought further review and blocked the proposal. A rendering of the proposed $680 million bridge is seen above. (Rendering submitted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation)

By Tony Anderson
Special to The Daily Reporter

Construction costs increase and development money slips away every day a St. Croix River bridge replacement is delayed, according to a Wisconsin legislator who wants to see project plans.

“This is a very important project for both Minnesota and Wisconsin,” said state Rep. Ann Hraychuck, D-Balsam Lake, “and it’s an absolute shame that this project has not moved forward.”

A federal judge blocked the proposal to replace the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge earlier this year, asking for clarification of a National Park Service evaluation of the plan. But Hraychuck said replacing the nearly 80-year-old bridge is important for the safety of people crossing the river between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

According to a 2006 traffic count, the bridge supports more than 18,000 vehicles per day.

The proposed $680 million bridge is a Minnesota Department of Transportation and Wisconsin Department of Transportation project. Kevin Chesnik, WisDOT division administrator, said MnDOT is taking the lead on the project, including handling the environmental issues, engineering and construction plans.

“Our role is to support Minnesota and to have funding available to match our half of the work,” he said, “and to do the approaches in Wisconsin that need to tie the bridge, if it gets built at that location, back into the system.”

Wisconsin is responsible for half of the bridge cost, then each state pays for its own approach. Wisconsin’s portion of the project is approximately $300 million. The Legislature has made an appropriation for bonding, but it is contingent on getting a $75 million federal grant to offset the cost.

Chesnik acknowledged money is tight for state and federal governments, but, so far, Wisconsin has covered its share of costs.

“Until the federal money issue is resolved,” he said, “we cannot move forward with our commitment to Minnesota for the construction costs.”

Last March, Hraychuck introduced legislation to erase the $75 million federal stimulus requirement and instead add that cost to the already approved bonding authority. However, her colleagues did not move the proposal forward before the Legislature went on recess. Hraychuck said she intends to reintroduce the proposal once the next session begins.

The revised Park Service evaluation of the Stillwater bridge project that was expected this summer is still in Washington, D.C. Department of Interior officials are reviewing the new evaluation, which was developed after Judge Michael Davis blocked the project as a violation of the national Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Although no one in Washington has blamed the Gulf Coast oil spill for the evaluation’s delay, Chris Stein, NPS superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, said that likely slowed the review process.

“Everyone in D.C. is busy with the disaster in one way or another,” Stein said.

Without a positive NPS evaluation, the plan to replace the existing Stillwater Lift Bridge cannot proceed, said Adam Josephson, MnDOT east area manager.

For two years prior to release of the 2005 evaluation, Stein said, NPS officials met with 28 groups with a stake in the bridge project. The result was a proposal that included measures to reduce the environmental effect the bridge would have on the shoreline.

As a result, NPS determined the benefits of a new bridge and the mitigation factors would offset the potentially negative effect the bridge would have on the recreational and scenic value of the river.

The Sierra Club sued the Federal Highway Administration and NPS regarding the 2005 evaluation of the project. The Sierra Club alleged the park service did not give adequate reason for its approval.

In response, Davis blocked NPS’ ability to approve the project, concluding the modified evaluation did not explain why NPS reached a different outcome; therefore, it was “arbitrary and capricious.”

“Judge Michael Davis asked us to better explain ourselves, and, hopefully, that’s what we have done in this document,” Stein said.

Although MnDOT has not reviewed the revised evaluation, Josephson was optimistic NPS will not significantly change its position.

A spokesperson for the Sierra Club in that region did not immediately return calls.

Although Davis blocked NPS from approving anything related to the project, Josephson said, MnDOT has continued working on the project. If everything goes as planned, he said, he anticipates letting the project in 2013.

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