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Lawmakers clash over St. Croix bridge proposal (UPDATE)

By Jack Zemlicka

Legislators in Wisconsin and Minnesota revived plans this week to construct a four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River, despite ongoing environmental concerns tied to the project.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., introduced a bill Tuesday that would allow the $700 million bridge connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin to be built, despite a ruling from the National Park Service that it would violate the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The legislation is co-sponsored by Wisconsin Congressmen Sean Duffy, a Republican, and Ron Kind, a Democrat.

The bridge would replace the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge that has long been a source of conflict due to environmental concerns.

“The 80-year-old lift bridge doesn’t have much life left in it,” said Daniel Son, a spokesman for Duffy. “It’s not a question of if a bridge will be built as a replacement, but when it will be built.”

The longer construction is delayed, Son said, the more the crossing will cost taxpayers.

“State and federal governments are not overreaching their obligation to their citizens by spending money on a vital river crossing which the area depends on,” he said.

In a letter to Gov. Scott Walker attributed to Kind, he encouraged support of the project. If approved, the letter states, the initiative would help create new jobs, attract business to the surrounding area and aid tourism.

Kind in his letter also raised concerns about potential safety hazards with the existing bridge and the “substantial investment” required to maintain its operation.

“It is critical that we move forward in the construction of the St. Croix River Crossing Project,” his letter states. “For too long, lawsuits and other challenges have gotten in the way, only increasing the price tag for the American taxpayer as we work to overcome obstacle after obstacle.”

But opponents of the bill, including Minnesota Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, argue the proposal amounts to an exemption from existing law on a protected river. McCollum said she intends to do everything in her power to defeat the proposal.

Last year, the National Park Service declared the St. Croix project would substantially impact the scenic and recreational value of the St. Croix River and could not be made compliant with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The ruling came after years of work by federal, state, and local stakeholders, including the National Park Service, to reach a consensus about how to address the transportation, historic preservation and environmental issues surrounding the project.

Denny Caneff, executive director of the Madison-based River Alliance of Wisconsin, acknowledged the need for a new bridge, but said any project should have to adhere to federal law.

“To sort of claim an exemption from federal land and waters protection laws to build a bridge seems goofy to me,” he said. “I think that is a bad move.”

For the project to move forward, Congress would need to pass legislation that allows for construction of the St. Croix River Project.

Caneff said he supports a smaller-scale bridge consisting of two lanes instead of four. He said a less expensive project would still meet transportation needs while also preserving the environment.

“Do we diminish a national resource like the lower St. Croix corridor so they can sell lots?” he said. “If all we’re worried about is funding these days, getting an adequate bridge rather than a superhighway across the bridge makes more sense.”

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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