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House subcommittee hears Stillwater bridge bill (UPDATE)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – A contentious bill allowing for construction of a new four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River south of Stillwater, Minn., advanced after its first congressional hearing Wednesday, despite environmental groups warning the bill would set a “damaging” precedent.

The bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Ron Kind, D-Wis., would waive federal environmental laws to allow for a new bridge to replace the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge. The St. Croix River separating Minnesota and Wisconsin is protected by the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the National Park Service says the proposed span doesn’t comply with the law. But Bachmann and others argue that a two-lane bridge no longer meets the area’s needs.

Bachmann’s district includes Stillwater. Her bill, heard Wednesday by the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, would simply deem the planned bridge consistent with the law so that construction could begin. Minnesota Public Radio News reported from Washington that the subcommittee referred the bill to the full committee for a vote to be held later.

Testifying in favor of her bill, Bachmann stressed the vital economic role of a new bridge. She said the construction project could employ more than 6,000 people.

“It’s impossible to measure the crippling economic impact that the St. Croix River Crossing Project delay has cost our two states from a commerce and jobs standpoint,” Bachmann said.

The project’s estimated $633 million cost would be paid for mostly through bonds issued by both Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The two-lane Stillwater Lift Bridge is 80 years old, and bridge traffic often spills into downtown Stillwater, resulting in miles-long traffic tie-ups.

Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki testified that the lift bridge needs replacing. He held up pieces of concrete and steel that he said “fell off” the bridge.

With power and sewage plants already at the planned new crossing in nearby Oak Park Heights, Harycki argued that stretch of river is “not scenic.”

But environmental groups continued their opposition to a new four-lane bridge. A coalition of 24 Wisconsin and Minnesota environmental groups urged House members to reject the proposal.

Although the bill only addresses the bridge over the St. Croix, the groups say it would set a “damaging national precedent.” The National Park Service also is concerned the bill would weaken the law, which is aimed at protecting the nation’s most pristine riverways from development.

Oak Park Heights Mayor Ken Beaudet went to Washington at his own expense to protest against the proposed bridge, calling it “inflated and out of scale.”

“It is out of scale for the taxpayers who will pay for it; it is out of scale for the property owners who will live with the impact of this giant structure,” Beaudet said, adding that he backs a new bridge but is opposed to the current bridge proposal.

After the hearing, the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he expects the full House Natural Resources Committee will approve the bill.

“Honestly, this is a dumb issue,” Bishop told reporters. “It should have been solved a long time ago. It’s being held up by the federal government playing with definitional terms.”

Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News,

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