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Environmental coalition seeks scaled down Stillwater bridge

A computer-generated conception of the new Stillwater bridge as currently proposed.

A number of Minnesota and Wisconsin organizations last week released a letter signed by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and 25 other state and national groups to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton regarding the St. Croix River crossing.

The coalition letter calls on the governor and Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Thomas Sorel come up with plans for a smaller-scale bridge in Stillwater that would dramatically reduce impacts on the Lower St. Croix River and replace the current lift bridge.

A smaller bridge would save taxpayers millions of dollars that could be spent for other transportation priorities, the group claims.

The St. Croix was one of the first Wild and Scenic Rivers designated by Congress, and the Lower St. Croix was protected in 1972.

In 2006 the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation proposed a new, freeway-style bridge over the Lower St. Croix. This proposal has an estimated cost of $640 million.

In October 2010, the National Park Service determined that the current bridge proposal is not permitted by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Speaking on behalf of this coalition, representatives of the Sierra Club, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, St. Croix River Association, River Alliance of Wisconsin, and Environmental Law gathered to speak about the issue.

"A new river bridge can certainly be built for much less than the $640 million projected cost of the current freeway-style bridge proposal," said Jim Rickard, Sierra Club St. Croix Valley group spokesperson. "The hundreds of millions of dollars potentially saved with a more modestly-scaled project can be used to create jobs on urgent road and bridge projects throughout Minnesota and implement transportation options in this corridor. We have consistently maintained that the Sierra Club is not against a new St. Croix bridge. We are hopeful that Gov. Dayton and other elected officials can work toward a solution that is less expensive and intrusive on the river, as the governors of Minnesota and Wisconsin accomplished in the 1980's in Prescott."

Scott Strand, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said his organization participated in the stakeholder mediation process that resulted in the present bridge design and the mitigation measures included in the project's 2006 record of decision.

"Since that time, much has changed," he said. "Given the financial stress both Minnesota and Wisconsin are now experiencing, there are many other road and bridge repair and replacement projects that should take priority and be moved forward. The present design for the St. Croix bridge project does not make economic sense, and its negative environmental impact on the river remains undeniable. We need to look at lower-cost alternatives that are less damaging to the St. Croix."

Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association (SCRA), located in St. Croix Falls, Wis., said the environmental coalition wants to do what's right St. Croix River.

"We have never opposed a new bridge, but have consistently advocated for a smaller scale, less expensive structure," she said. "We support the NPS decision announced in October last year and are opposed to any congressional action that would weaken the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. We are committed to work with the elected officials of both states on a solution to this long-standing dispute, consistent with the less costly and intrusive approach outlined in the coalition's letter to Gov. Dayton."

Denny Caneff, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, called on Wisconsin Gov. Walker and Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb to explore lower cost and smaller-scale options as well.

"This proposed new bridge, across a river loved and protected by the late Gaylord Nelson, is well beyond what is required to serve the needs of western Wisconsin," he said. "Its expense and extravagance can't be defended, from an investment perspective, in the current fiscal crisis facing Wisconsin."