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Update: Bridge plan suffers setback

The 1,050-foot-long Stillwater lift bridge, built in 1931, is likely to remain in operation longer than many people want following a decision last week by U.S. District Judge Michael Davis. He said the latest plan to build a new bridge violates the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Photo by Margaret A. Ontl

U.S. District Judge Michael Davis on Thursday, March 11, issued an opinion to stop the proposed new bridge over the St. Croix River after considering the matter since Sept. 14, 2009.

On Monday, John Soderberg, a New Richmond banker who has worked on the bridge proposal for years, said he hasn't been able to sleep since hearing the news.

"But we're not going to stop," he vowed. "We're going to move ahead until we get this thing done. You haven't heard the end of it."

Soderberg said he been talking with national and area leaders about what the next step will be. Whether or not there will be a legal appeal is uncertain at this point, he added.

"Everybody knows the bridge has to be replaced at some point," he said. "And the longer we wait, the more it's going to cost."

Elected officials representing the region also voiced their displeasure over the new developments.

"I think it's a very disappointing decision," said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, on Thursday afternoon. "This is a setback in the progress of the bridge, but hopefully only one that is minor."

He added he's already been on the telephone with area leaders about the ruling and he's committed to working with local authorities to push the bridge plan forward.

"We're going to work very hard to fix this," he said. "Every year we delay this, the price tag for the bridge gets higher and higher."

He said anyone who has driven on the bridge recently realizes that it needs to be replaced.

"This decision only increases the price tag for the American taxpayer as we continue to work to overcome the hurdles in front of us," he said. "Further delay is only going to be detrimental to the growing region."

In his opinion, Davis agreed with the Sierra Club, which brought the lawsuit, noting the construction plans violate the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Davis noted the National Park Service's previous 1996 position that a new bridge would dramatically impact the river's scenic status was ignored when the bridge was eventually approved by the agency.

"The National Park Service then inexplicably concluded that the new bridge would not directly and adversely affect the Lower St. Croix's outstandingly remarkable scenic and recreational values," Davis wrote. "While there are some differences between the two bridges, common sense provides that they are generally similar -- in purpose, location and physical characteristics."

As a result, Davis wrote, the National Park Service was required to explain its flip-flop more fully in order to justify the building of a new bridge.

The park service and the U.S. secretary of interior violated the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Davis claimed, when the bridge was given the green light to proceed. The St. Croix River was designated a wild and scenic river in 1964, giving it special protections.

Kind said he was surprised at the decision, noting that officials went through a thorough process that attempted to address all the concerns.

When the many stakeholders, who previously disagreed about certain aspects of the bridge plan, signed off on the project, Kind said he thought the path was clear for eventual construction.

"In 2003, my office recommended the initiation of a resolve process to offer all stakeholders, including the Sierra Club, a seat at the table and a voice in the decision making process regarding the bridge," he explained. "The process took into account Sierra Club's concerns and created a plan that limited environmental impact, yet the Sierra Club still walked away and later filed the lawsuit that resulted in the judgment today."

Particularly disappointing about the judge's decision, Kind added, is the thought that the federal agency wasn't allowed to approve the bridge plan following the extensive collaborative stakeholder effort.

"What the ruling seems to indicate is the National Park Service is not allowed to change its mind," Kind said, "which is ridiculous."

In his decision, Davis wrote that the park service was allowed to change its mind, "but the agency must explain its reasons for changing its position."

"The National Park Service's failure to acknowledge its previous position, let alone explain why, in its opinion, a change is justified, is the hallmark of an arbitrary and capricious decision," he wrote.

State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, joined Kind in blasting the judge's decision and the Sierra Club's continued efforts to block the bridge.

"It is extremely disappointing that the determination of one judge and the leadership of one group, the Sierra Club, are blocking needed progress on a new Stillwater bridge," she said in a statement Friday. "It took the judge six months to determine that an old and outdated statement by the National Park Service made nearly 15 years ago was enough to derail a consensus on getting construction for the bridge going in 2013. To say that the NPS can never change its position and use that as the basis to allow the Sierra Club to continue to use the courts to obstruct is sad."

Harsdorf said thousands of people depend on the Stillwater Bridge for safe and efficient travel and it's time to get the new bridge started.

"The Sierra Club has repeatedly shown they will not negotiate in good faith and now everybody loses," she said.

Bill Rubin, executive director of the St. Croix Economic Development Corp., said he remains hopeful that the issues surrounding the river crossing can still be addressed. He doesn't want to see the entire process start over again.

"Transportation investments are a necessity for the economic well-being of the Twin Cities, including the Wisconsin portion," he said. "The St. Croix River crossing project is of regional significance that provides benefit to both Wisconsin and Minnesota. The St. Croix River remains a protected resource, but with appropriate mitigation, a new river crossing can become a reality."

Wisconsin and Minnesota transportation officials, legislators and business leaders had hoped that construction of the new bridge could begin no later than 2013. Construction of the bridge was expected to take about three years.

The cost of the bridge was previously estimated at about $670 million, and bridge supporters hoped that construction might start sooner and the price tag lessened if stimulus funding could be appropriated for the project.

Last month, official notice came that the St. Croix span would not be included in the federal funding package.

For their part, Sierra Club officials say they've proposed viable alternatives to the present plan, like constructing a new bridge near the site of the current bridge, but neither state has considered them.

Sierra Club representatives say they aren't necessarily opposed to a new bridge, just the bridge as it is currently designed.

"This specific bridge proposal fails to meet residents' needs, and would harm the high-quality features that define the value of our wild and scenic river," said St. Croix Valley Sierra Club spokesperson Jim Rickard. "Now we have an opportunity to get it right, and address users' transportation and safety needs in a way that is environmentally and fiscally responsible."

Sierra Club officials said state agencies need to immediately explore alternatives that will relieve traffic congestion for users of the existing bridge.

"There are many options to quickly address residents' concerns while continuing to protect the St. Croix, including increased transit and improvements to the I-94 corridor," said Margaret Levin, state director of the Minnesota Sierra Club North Star Chapter.

The proposed bridge was to be built a mile south of downtown Stillwater, near the intersection of Hwy. 36 and Hwy. 95 in Oak Park Heights, Minn. The bridge, if constructed as designed, would span the St. Croix and end in Houlton.

The bridge would be about 3,000 feet long, which would nearly triple the 1,050-foot length of the 1931 historic lift bridge. With a new bridge, two lanes of traffic would travel in each direction.

Under the current plan, the downtown Stillwater lift bridge, a registered historic landmark, was to be turned into a pedestrian path after the completion of the proposed bridge. A path along the proposed bridge would connect with the lift bridge path, creating a loop trail.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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