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Our View: Concerned about Wisconsin's impact on Stillwater Bridge

Looks like some people in the southern part of Wisconsin are again trying to give northern Wisconsin the short end of the stick.

Wisconsin Sen. Mark Miller (Monona), co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance, has thrown a monkey wrench into the Stillwater Bridge project by adding a policy statement into the proposed Wisconsin budget.

Miller's provision, buried in the budget bill, would prohibit state or federal funds for a bridge project that "crosses a river forming a boundary of the state if the project is awarded to a contract using a design-build process." Clearly this wording is targeting the Stillwater Bridge project.

In an article in last week's Star-Observer, Republican Rep. Kitty Rhoades said the Democrat-controlled Finance Committee, Senate, Assembly and governor were instrumental in proposing 95 policy changes within the state budget. She said policy changes should be argued on their own merits. This bridge language is a prime example of Rhoades' argument.

The non-fiscal policy item in the budget bill has also drawn the attention of Republican State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, an advocate of a new Stillwater Bridge.

Minnesota is the designated lead state on this bridge project and would use design-build to move the project forward in a timely fashion; yet both states would share in funding the costs of a new bridge.

Design-build is a process in which design and construction overlap. It is an expedited construction process where, instead of separate contractors for the design and then construction, a single contractor oversees the entire project from beginning to end. It is often faster because construction can begin before the designs are finalized.

It is a practice that helps get projects completed in a timely fashion. The alternative is the design-bid-build process. Many argue, however, that the design-bid-build process would not necessarily mean a less expensive bridge

Some figures show the cost of construction, for the now $484 million bridge project, grows by about $1 million every month. Stretching the process may indeed cost more, not less.

The new bridge would replace the Stillwater Lift Bridge as a major Minnesota-Wisconsin crossing. Built in 1931, the two-lane lift bridge is a bottleneck for the 18,000 vehicles that cross it daily. Last year, MnDOT made funding the Stillwater project a priority, moving up the bridge's replacement from 2024 to 2013.

More importantly, however, it sends the wrong message about this critically needed bridge project. It also undermines the cooperation between Minnesota and Wisconsin in recent years. It sends the message that Wisconsin is not interested in investing in a critical project in northwestern Wisconsin. Would the last-minute rule changes be imposed for a project in the Milwaukee or Madison area? We think not.

In the words of Sen. Harsdorf: "A new Stillwater Bridge is a critical component of our region's transportation infrastructure. It is appalling that Madison co-chairs of the budget committee member would insert provisions that would further complicate our ongoing efforts to make a new Stillwater Bridge a reality."