By Mary Divine
STILLWATER, Minn. (AP) — Terry Zoller has an unusual perspective for a Minnesota Department of Transportation employee working on the new St. Croix River bridge: He can see it from his backyard.
Zoller, the bridge construction manager, lives on South Broadway Street on the city’s South Hill, the Pioneer Press reported. He is a born and bred fourth-generation Stillwater resident. He was a member of the Stillwater City Council, is active at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and serves on the city’s charter commission and Washington County’s planning commission.
When he says he knows firsthand how important a new bridge is for Stillwater and the St. Croix River Valley, people believe him. He’s been advocating for a new bridge for decades.
“I’ve always been on that side of the fence,” Zoller said during an interview after a recent tour of the construction site. “I just knew from a traffic standpoint that the only way you’re going to get traffic off the South Hill is to put a new bridge in.”
When Zoller ran for re-election to the Stillwater City Council in 1998, he told the Pioneer Press that his main reason for running was to work on getting a green light for the controversial project.
“We need to get this thing built because of the traffic congestion that the Stillwater Lift Bridge causes,” said Zoller, then a maintenance operations engineer for MnDOT’s metro division. “We all want to just get this thing over with.”
The road wasn’t easy. After decades of controversy that reached all the way to Congress and President Barack Obama, the construction of the most expensive highway project in Minnesota history began in 2013.
The new four-lane bridge will replace the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge as the main Minnesota-Wisconsin crossing north of Interstate 94. It will divert thousands of daily drivers out of Stillwater’s historic downtown and route them instead to Minnesota 36, through Oak Park Heights, Minn. The lift bridge will become a crossing for bicyclists and pedestrians.
As construction manager, Zoller’s job is to oversee building a bridge that will be a little less than a mile long — 5,100 feet — with more than 600,000 square feet of deck area, making it Minnesota’s seventh-longest bridge and second-largest by deck area.
The project — estimated to cost up to $646 million — also includes building three miles of four-lane highway on Wisconsin 35 and rebuilding about three miles of Minnesota 36 and 95.
Zoller, who has worked for MnDOT for 44 years, took on the duties of manager for the St. Croix project in June 2012.
Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski said Zoller — “a lifelong Stillwater guy” — was the perfect person to shepherd the project.
“The guy has been involved, in some fashion, with local government or as a councilman for 20 years,” Kozlowski said. “He knows what the city wants. He has his finger on the pulse of the city; he always has.
“Considering how divisive the project was at its onset, I feel a lot better knowing that someone who absolutely cares about our town — that knows our town — is the person in charge down there.”
Before joining the bridge project, Zoller served as MnDOT’s head of metro construction and worked out of the agency’s Golden Valley office.
“I had to drive to Golden Valley every day for 12 years, so when this thing came up, it was a no-brainer,” he said. “It was in my backyard. I would have been out here every day anyway, so I might as well get paid for it. It’s a beautiful thing, and you’ve got to be involved.”
Zoller also worked on construction of the Smith Avenue High Bridge in St. Paul. When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in August 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145, Zoller served as incident commander. He oversaw the recovery operation, bringing in the cranes and bringing out the cars and the bridge itself.
Zoller’s knowledge and experience in the construction industry, coupled with his familiarity with the Stillwater area and its people, make him the “perfect fit for this project,” said his boss, Michael Beer, the project’s director.
“He always goes above and beyond. He’s just a great asset,” Beer said. “It’s clear the project really hits home with him.”
As part of his duties, Zoller leads boat tours of the construction site, attends community meetings and answers questions from the public.
After attending a couple of community meetings in 2013, Zoller said he quickly realized the need for a visual aid to help explain the construction process. He designed and helped build a model depicting a small section of the new bridge.
“People kept asking questions about how we assembled this thing, and how does it work,” Zoller said. “It was hard to explain without pointing to something and saying, ‘This is how it’s done.’ People were scratching their heads. ‘How in the heck is this thing going to go together?’ ”
Zoller’s model shows how the bridge’s massive concrete segments would be brought upstream by barge, lifted into the air and attached to the bridge deck. Bridge construction engineer Paul Kivisto’s father built the piers; Zoller’s brother, Robert, built the bridge deck; and Terry Zoller built the lifters and cables and assembled it.
Zoller, 65, said he is amazed by the interest in the new bridge.
“The first boat tour starts at 9 a.m., and we’ve got about 20 or 30 people standing in line at 8 a.m.,” he said. “There’s just a lot of curiosity about how this thing is being put together. I haven’t heard anybody give us a negative comment about what is going on or about the bridge. I know there are still people out there who are against it, I just don’t hear anything.
“Most people have accepted it,” he said. “They may not agree with it, but they’ve accepted what’s going on.”
Questions on a recent boat tour touched on snow removal, the paint scheme and the material used to coat the bridge deck. Zoller nixed a suggestion that half the bridge be painted purple and gold for the Minnesota Vikings and half green and gold for the Green Bay Packers. “It’s going to be tan,” he said.
Many of the people who take the tour are repeat visitors; Zoller is part of the attraction, said Kivisto, who also helps lead the tours.
“It’s great to have a person with Terry’s experience working on this,” Kivisto said. “He’s been through an awful lot and has probably seen everything that can be seen in construction. He knows all the things going on with the bridge. He’s been a great mentor to me, a great teacher.”
Zoller credits his mother, Marie Zoller, who taught elementary school and worked at the Washington County recorder’s office, for instilling an interest in public service; she died in 1982 at the age of 68.
“My mother always told us that we had to serve our community and serve our church and serve the family,” Zoller said. “She always said, ‘You can’t complain unless you’re on the other side and get involved in things,’ so I kind of live by that. There are four of us — four boys — and I think all of us have taken that to heart. She was quite a mentor to a lot of people.”
Zoller graduated from Hill High School in 1969 and started working for MnDOT as a draftsman in 1972. Ten years later, he earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Minnesota.
Zoller had planned to retire this fall, when the bridge was originally scheduled to open to traffic. The completion date, however, was pushed back a year — which means Zoller’s retirement also has been delayed.
“I want to wait until the bridge is finished, and finish on a high note,” he said.
But Zoller said construction is moving along quickly and hinted that the bridge might open to traffic earlier than the fall of 2017. When pressed for details, he said: “Let’s just leave it at that.”
“It’s going so fast now, you can’t put it all in your mind at the same time,” he said. “From three months to now, it’s just completely different. We should be done with most of the work this fall and have most of the pieces up and hanging. Next year it’s going to be the clean-up work, the painting, putting the guardrails on, the lights, electrical work and all that. It’s just amazing.”