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NPS puts brakes on Stillwater bridge project, again

It's deja vu all over again for Stillwater bridge backers.

The long-awaited word from the National Park Service regarding the agency's opinion on the environmental impact of the bridge on the federally-designated Wild and Scenic Riverway has come, and it's not good news for supporters of the new span.

In a press release from the National Park Service Friday, officials say that a new evaluation of the project indicates that "adverse effects" from the construction of a new bidge cannot be avoided.

In a letter from NPS Midwest Regional Director Ernest Quintana to Derrell Turner at the Federal Highway Administration, Quintana said a new bridge would "fundamentally change the scenic qualities that existed when the St. Croix was designated a national wild and scenic river in 1972 for its outstanding scenic, recreational, and geologic values."

As a result, the NPS will not sign off on the new bridge.

NPS Superintendent Christopher Stein, in a letter to the editor sent to media outlets, said the agency is charged with protecting the riverway from negative environmental and visual impacts.

The bridge project, as it is currently proposed, would harm both aspects, he noted.

If a new bridge is ever to be constructed, Stein wrote, Congress must approve a special piece of legislation to allow the project to move forward.

Bridge supporters were hopeful that a new bridge would be built by 2013, after a stakeholders' group approved a compromise plan in 2006. One of the stakeholders that signed off on that compromise plan was the National Park Service.

In March of this year, in response to a lawsuit from the Sierra Club, Judge Michael Davis ruled that the NPS failed to clearly justify its change of heart in supporting the most recent bridge proposal. Previously, the NPS had objected to the idea due to the Wild & Scenic Riverway Act.

Bridge supporters were hopeful that the NPS would return with a new and better substantiated opinion in July of this year, paving the way for construction to start. No decision came, and bridge supporters grew impatient.

Last week, in an effort to push the issue forward, state and federal elected officials sent letters to NPS officials asking them to issue their opinion. Local leaders also asked for the decision to be issued.

Friday's announcement wasn't what they expected.

State Rep. Ann Hraychuck (D-Balsam Lake) was one of the elected officials hoping for good news. She said she was disappointed and surprised when she heard the announcement.

"The cost of the bridge has increased astronomically, since it was first talked about," she said. "It will only continuingto increase."

A new Stillwater bridge has been discussed for several decades. Lawsuits from environmental advocates have put a stop to the idea on several occasions.

According to Sierra Club officials, the organization isn't against a new bridge, but would rather see it built near the location of the current lift bridge to minimize the environmental impact.

The Sierra Club responded quckly to the day's announcement.

"The Sierra Club appreciates the thorough, accurate and professional analysis of the National Park Service in performing its mission of protecting the qualities for which the Lower St Croix has been federally designated," said St. Croix Valley Sierra Club spokesperson Jim Rickard. "We look forward to partnering with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and other stakeholder groups to immediately develop a proposal for a new appropriately-scaled bridge -- one which would preserve the qualities of the river, while serving the needs of residents and saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."

The Sierra Club also called on state agencies to immediately explore transportation options that will provide immediate relief to users, such as express bus and commuter rail and intercity passenger rail service between West Central Wisconsin and the Twin Cities.

"The Sierra Club supports a new crossing of the St. Croix River that respects, protects and preserves the environmental qualities for which the St. Croix was designated as one of eight original National Scenic Riverways in federal legislation. Further, we believe that such a bridge could be built for less than half the cost of what has been proposed by the Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation departments, saving taxpayer dollars," said Margaret Levin, Sierra Club state director.