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Start of St. Croix River Crossing project is celebrated

STILLWATER, Minn. -- 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.

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, chairman of the board for First National Community Bank in New Richmond, Wis., 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."