Bridge backers gaining optimism
It's been close before.
Back in the 1990s, the proposed St. Croix River Crossing project was just 30 days from being let for bids. But legal challenges, like obstacles that stopped the bridge several times before, again put the proposal on the shelf.
Since then, supporters of the idea of a new span between Stillwater, and Houlton have been working methodically to overcome the final roadblocks to construction.
It appears that day may come very soon.
The Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, a non-profit organization dedicated to getting the bridge built, held an upbeat news conference in New Richmond on Friday, Nov. 11 to discuss the mounting good news.
Russ Korpela, executive director of the New Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce and a coalition member, reported that the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee had overwhelmingly approved a bill, sponsored by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, that would allow the new St. Croix River Crossing at Stillwater to be constructed.
Thursday's approval, with just two of the 22 committee members voting against it, means the measure will now head to the U.S. Senate floor for consideration. An identical bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, sponsored by Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, is pending on the House floor, Korpela said.
New Richmond Mayor Fred Horne said the positive news has been 25 years in the making.
"We may finally get a bridge," he declared at the press conference.
He said the bridge is not only important because it will ensure efficient traffic movement between western Wisconsin and Minnesota, it will also improve safety and lessen the environmental impact of idling vehicles.
State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) said the eventual construction of the bridge will mean a great deal for the future of western Wisconsin.
"It's absolutely essential for the region," she said.
She cautioned those who support the bridge not to assume that the bridge plan is suddenly in the clear.
"Every step of the way, the opponents are going to throw up hurdles," she said.
Korpela agreed, noting that opponents to the bridge have hired top-notch lobbyists who could throw a monkey wrench into the whole process.
"We've got to keep fighting," he said. "Keep working."
Supporters urged area residents to contact their U.S. senators and representatives to express their opinions on the bridge plan.
Following last week's Senate committee approval, bridge backers were thrilled.
"This is an important step in advancing this critical project so that residents and businesses in Stillwater and the St. Croix River Valley can finally have a safe, more efficient alternative to the 80-year-old lift bridge," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "I will continue to work closely with my colleagues in the Senate and House to move this legislation forward in a timely manner."
Klobuchar was joined on the bill by Sens. Herb Kohl, D-Wis.; Al Franken, D-Minn.; and Ron Johnson, R-Wis. In the House, supporters include Reps. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.; Ron Kind, D-Wis.; Chip Cravaack, R-Minn.; and Sean Duffy, R-Wis.
Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican and Mark Dayton of Minnesota, a Democrat, support the measure.
However, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., has been a vocal critic of bridge plan. Also, 30 Wisconsin and Minnesota state legislators this week wrote a letter opposing the bridge. Their proposal is for a three-lane bridge that would cost less. However, Klobuchar said, that bridge would take decades more to build and need to go through lengthy federal hearings.
The Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing issued a statement immediately following the committee's passage of the bill.
"After 25 years of discussion and debate, we have never been closer to building a new crossing to replace our 80-year-old, fracture-critical, functionally obsolete bridge," the statement read. "We know we have the right project because all other alternatives have been reviewed and rejected.
"No more delays. It's time to build the bridge."
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) also issued a statement on the bridge progress.
"I am pleased that the committee was able to work together to pass legislation to authorize the St. Croix River Crossing project with bipartisan support," he said. "This is a critical step in getting this long-overdue project across the finish line, helping solve the transportation needs in the area and bringing economic growth to the region."
The bridge, which is estimated to cost between $574 million and $690 million, would provide a four-lane span that would open up commuter and shopper access between western Wisconsin and the Twin Cities metro area.
Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have money set aside for the project, and Klobuchar noted that she has secured an "offset" for the project. The offset was included in last week's committee action thanks to an approved amendment.