Supporters of a proposed new bridge across the St. Croix River gathered to celebrate Saturday morning in Stillwater, Minn.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted 339-80 on Thursday morning to exempt the proposed new St. Croix River Crossing project from the restrictions of the Federal Wild & Scenic Riverway Act. The U.S. Senate previously approved the same bill on a unanimous vote.
The action paves the way for eventual construction of a new four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River at Stillwater, Minn. and Houlton. The new span will replace the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge, which has been deemed obsolete and functionally inadequate for years.
The one remaining step in the federal process is a signature from President Barack Obama, although U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has indicated that the president intends to sign the bill.
The process for constructing a new bridge has been underway for decades. Talk of replacing the current span began in the 1950s, but funding issues and environmental roadblocks have derailed previous efforts.
On Saturday, those who have lobbied for construction of the bridge over many years gathered to enjoy a long-awaited celebration.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) hugged Wisconsin State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) and beamed. Both have labored for about 20 years on the bridge issue.
"We did it, we did it, we did it," Bachmann said. "How many years have we been talking about this?"
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) mingled in the crowd to shake hands and congratulate various state legislators, local elected officials and members of the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing who were instrumental in pushing the bridge project forward.
During a brief press conference, Klobuchar held up a copy of the Stillwater Gazette from 1931, the year the current lift bridge was opened. The large headline at the top of the paper read "City Ready for Bridge Celebration." The crowd erupted in applause.
"This is just an exciting day for the valley," she said. "We put politics aside and we got it done. It was just a team effort."
She thanked local leaders who never gave up on the project, even when it appeared a new bridge would never get constructed.
"You never gave up, no matter how impossible it seemed," she said.
Klobuchar said the facts spoke loudly to members of Congress when it came time to vote on the bill that will allow for a new bridge. Because 18,000 vehicles per day cross a bridge that was designed to handle just 11,000 vehicles a day, and because pieces of the bridge are crumbling and traffic snarls downtown Stillwater on a regular basis, Klobuchar said the time was right for a fix.
Klobuchar said she and her fellow Wisconsin and Minnesota congressmen worked hard to talk with every member of the U.S. House and Senate to get the necessary votes secured.
"I don't think there is a senator or a member of Congress that doesn't know about this bridge," she said with a laugh. "It was quite an undertaking."
U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) said it was remarkable that elected officials from both sides of the aisle pulled together to get the bridge bill approved.
"I think we can take a lesson from the St. Croix River bridge and we can try to apply the bipartisanship and the effort of a community working together to get things done," he said.
Bachmann quoted former entertainer Jackie Gleason's famous line, "Baby how sweet it is," when talking to the crowd.
"That could be said today," she said. "This is one sweet moment. I'm so glad it's done."
Bachmann called the push for the bridge a "magic moment" because so many people played a role in accomplishing the goal.
"We knew if it was going to get done, we had to do it now," she said. "We knew the window of opportunity was very, very short."
Bachmann said the most important lesson from the bipartisan effort is that elected officials can accomplish much if they set politics aside.
"At the crux of all this are people. People who need us to work together," she said. "And rather than divide, love each other. We need to recognize that sometimes we need to put everything aside to make sure we get things done."
Bachmann said she talked with LaHood, who supports the bridge project, following this week's House vote.
"The president of the United States will be signing this bill," she said. "So we've got ourselves a bridge."
St. Croix County Board Chairman Daryl Standafer expressed his gratitude to Congress for their work on the issue.
Standafer referred specifically to Bachmann and Klobuchar, who served as the key bill sponsors in the House and Senate.
"We thank our two champions," he said. "We say thank you very much. We are indebted to you."
At one point, Standafer held up a piece of rust collected that morning from the decaying Lift Bridge.
He said the rust is a vivid reminder that a new bridge is needed soon.
Tom Sorel, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said once President Obama signs the bill, his department is poised to move forward with the bridge.
He said foundation loadtesting will begin this spring and design work will kick into high gear. Sorel said bid letting could begin as early as 2013.
According to Kevin Gutknecht, Minnesota DOT spokesperson, construction would likely begin late in 2013 or early 2014. The bridge should take about three years to complete.
Road work on the approaches would start a year after the bridge starts and would take about two years to complete, Gutknecht added.