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Stillwater bridge project gaining bipartisan support

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, left, and U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, center, talk with Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki about the current condition of the lift bridge and the traffic problems the downtown experiences on a daily basis.

A small group of local residents showed up to cheer a group of politicians who toured the Stillwater, Minn., lift bridge Friday afternoon.

"Build the bridge," they chanted over and over.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann headed straight for the group when the tour was done, shaking hands and thanking them for their encouragement.

Dayton and Bachmann joined Minnesota and Wisconsin state legislators, Stillwater officials and other elected officials from both sides of the St. Croix River for the gathering. It appeared most, if not all, were there to give their support to the idea of constructing a new four-lane bridge to help alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety for motorists.

Bachmann, who has introduced a bill in Congress to exempt a new river crossing project from present Wild and Scenic Riverways Act restrictions, wanted to bring Dayton up to speed on what's happening with the local bridge.

The project was derailed again last year when a judge ruled in favor of opponents of the plan, who claimed the bridge would conflict with the federal protections designed to limit environmental impacts along the St. Croix.

As the tour started, Tom Styrbicki, assistant state bridge engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, answered questions as the group made its way halfway across the bridge.

Styrbicki assured Gov. Dayton that the local bridge remains structurally sound and safe for motorists, despite low ratings in federal reports.

According to Kevin Gutknecht, MnDOT spokesman, talk of a new bridge in Stillwater has been going on since the 1950s. But the span remains a viable transportation link between the two states.

"It's 80 years old," he said. "It isn't pretty. But we've done a lot of work on this bridge. The bridge is safe; the bridge is sound."

Still, Dayton suggested that the historic bridge has served its purpose and the best option for meeting the future transportation needs of the region was for work on a new bridge to begin soon. He called the current bridge inadequate and said something needs to be done soon.

If the bridge project heads back to the drawing board, Dayton warned, it would be at least another 10 years before a new plan could be developed and the span ultimately constructed. Opponents to the current plan suggests that a smaller, two-lane bridge be considered instead.

"I want a resolution to this," Dayton said. "This is the only realistic option for the next decade. It's not realistic to say that there's another alternative."

Dayton recalled that he spoke before the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce a decade ago, when he was a U.S. senator, and the bridge project hasn't progressed much since then.

Bachmann said she's optimistic that Congress will approve the bill to allow for the bridge to begin, noting that there is bipartisan support from Wisconsin and Minnesota congressional delegations. The key, however, is getting the measure approved in the U.S. Senate.

"It's time for this bridge to be built," Bachmann said. "It looks like we have all of the pieces coming together."

John Soderberg of New Richmind, who has been working with bridge supporters for years, said he was encouraged by the tour and meeting.

"I'm more optimistic now than I've ever been," he said.

His optimism is buoyed by the fact that both Democratic and Republican elected officials are lining up to back the bill in Congress.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, current cost estimates for the proposed bridge range from $574 million to $690 million. Minnesota's share of the project would be $220 million to $380 million, while Wisconsin's portion will be between $250 million and $310 million.

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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