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UPDATE: Act of Congress leads to bridge project's start

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It was a day John Soderberg didn't know if he'd ever witness.

In the shadow of the aging Stillwater Lift Bridge, area business leaders, residents, politicians and media representatives gathered Tuesday for a ceremonial groundbreaking event for the St. Croix River Crossing project.

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Construction work had already begun weeks before, but bridge boosters wanted a chance to herald the start of a $629 million project that took decades to achieve.

For Soderberg, a key Wisconsin champion of the new bridge, the groundbreaking event was a highlight of 17 years of volunteer effort to get the span built.

Soderberg, the chairman of the board for First National Community Bank in New Richmond, said the day was an exciting time for him and many others.

"I'm just tickled pink," he said with a laugh. "I couldn't be more thrilled. This is something I've looked forward to for so long."

As a bridge debate veteran, Soderberg remains at the ready for potential obstacles ahead. He said the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, an organization he co-chairs, continues to function in case anything legal challenges or political issues pop up.

"It's so important for us to stay together," he said. "We have to be ready to answer all questions."

Looking back over the past couple years, Soderberg said it's miraculous that the bridge will likely be a reality. It took an act of Congress in 2012, with support from Democrats and Republicans alike and backing from both Minnesotans and Wisconsinites, to make it happen.

"The cooperation was very refreshing," he said. "It could be a lesson for other things in our country ... working together to do what's best for this country."

Congress approved an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to allow the construction project to move forward. The span was blocked for years by those who feared the project would compromise the environmentally sensitive riverway.

With news of another bridge collapse over the weekend, Soderberg said the St. Croix River Crossing is happening none too soon. He said the nation's crumbling infrastructure is proof that the country needs to maintain and improve its transportation system.

At Tuesday's groundbreaking, numerous politicians were on hand to celebrate along with people from Wisconsin and Minnesota. The group gathered in Lowell Park in Stillwater for a brief ceremony.

Among the dignitaries were Wisconsin politicians Gov. Scott Walker, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind; and Minnesota elected officials U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. State legislators were also on hand for the event.

In opening the day's comments, Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zeller applauded the effort that will make the bridge a reality.

"This is not just a bridge, it's a connection between our two great states," he said. "This is an important, historic moment."

Duffy said the bipartisan effort behind the bridge project is an example of what can happen when people put political party affiliation aside.

"I know this day is a long time coming," Duffy said. "A lot of people came together to make this thing happen."

Kind, who worked on the bridge project for many years when St. Croix County was in his district, said he was thrilled to see the bridge come to pass.

"Let's build the bridge," commented Kind. "What sweet music those words bring to the ears of so many in this room. It is long past due."

Commenting on how long the bridge project has been debated, Kind joked that St. Croix County Economic Development Corp. Director Bill Rubin's first words as a child were "Let's build the bridge."

"I swear to God, John Soderberg was a negative 20 years old when he started working on the bridge," he said.

Bachmann said her real motivation for building the bridge is so she can get to the Ellsworth Cheese Factory a little quicker.

She said improved safety and job creation are among the benefits of the bridge project, which will continue through 2016.

"The No. 1 people we have to thank are those in this community who wouldn't say no and who wouldn't give up the dream," she told the crowd. "For those on the Minnesota side of the river ... for those on the Wisconsin side of the river, this says something about the preseverance of hearty Midwesterners."

Walker said he was glad to celebrate with the members of Congress on Tuesday. He said the project will benefit two of the fastest growing counties in each of the two states.

Baldwin recalled her visit to St. Paul last Thanksgiving when someone in attendance heard she was getting a tour of the Stillwater Lift Bridge the day. She said she heard firsthand about the need for a new bridge from some who has driven on the span daily for more than 20 years.

"It is indeed a testament when we put partisanship aside," she said. "This is what happens when we work together."

Klobuchar talked a bit about the challenges she faced in getting a unanimous vote in the U.S. Senate that allowed the project to move forward.

"It was all about standing up against some bad facts," she said, noting that opponents appeared to want to stay in the past. "A lot of us felt we had to move to the future."

After the groundbreaking, a special celebration was held at the nearby Water Street Inn. The New Richmond High School and Stillwater Area High School bands provided music for the afternoon.

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