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UPDATE: Stillwater bridge project gaining bi-partisan support

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (left) and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (center) talk with Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki about the current condition of the lift bridge and the traffic problems the downtown experiences on a daily basis.2 / 6
New Richmond Mayor Fred Horne tells Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann how Wisconsin residents avoid the Stillwater bridge due to back-ups.3 / 6
A small crowd of people chanted "Build the bridge" as elected officials finished their tour of the historic lift bridge in Stillwater, Minn. Friday.4 / 6
Rep. Michele Bachmann and Gov. Mark Dayton talk to the press following the bridge tour.5 / 6
Tom Styrbicki (left), assistant state bridge engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, conducted the tour with Gov. Mark Dayton and Rep. Michele Bachmann, along with other elected officials.6 / 6

A small group of local residents showed up to cheer a group of politicians who toured the Stillwater, Minn. lift bridge Friday afternoon, March 18.

"Build the bridge," they chanted over and over.

Democratic Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Sixth District) headed straight for the group when the tour was done, shaking hands and thanking them for their encouragement.

Dayton and Bachmann joined Minnesota and Wisconsin state legislators, Stillwater officials and other elected officials from both sides of the St. Croix River for the gathering. It appeared most, if not all, were there to pledge their support for the idea of constructing a new four-lane bridge to help alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety for motorists.

Bachmann, who has introduced a bill in Congress to allow for a new river crossing project despite Wild and Scenic Riverways Act restrictions, wanted to bring Dayton up to speed on what's happening with the local bridge. The project was derailed again last year when a judge ruled in favor of opponents of the plan who claimed the bridge would conflict with the federal protections designed to limit environmental impacts along the St. Croix.

As the tour started, Tom Styrbicki, assistant state bridge engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, answered questions as the group made its way halfway across the bridge.

Styrbicki assured Gov. Dayton that the local bridge remains structurally sound and safe for motorists, despite low sufficiency ratings in federal reports.

"Personally I think it's a safe bridge," he said. "Frankly, it might be safer now than it ever has been in its history due to the scrutiny we're putting on the bridge now."

According to Kevin Gutknecht, MnDOT spokesman, talk of a new bridge in Stillwater has been going on since the 1950s. But the span, despite its age, remains a viable transportation link between the two states.

"It's 80 years old," he said. "It isn't pretty. But we've done a lot of work on this bridge. The bridge is safe; the bridge is sound."

Still, Dayton suggested that the historic bridge has served its purpose and the best option for meeting the future transportation needs of the region was for work on a new bridge to begin soon. He called the current bridge inadequate and said something needs to be done soon.

If the bridge project heads back to the drawing board, Dayton warned, it would be at least another 10 years before a new plan could be developed and the span ultimately constructed. Opponents to the current plan suggests that a smaller, two-lane bridge be considered instead.

"I want a resolution to this," Dayton said. "This is the only realistic option for the next decade. It's not realistic to say that there's another alternative."

Dayton said a two-lane bridge would not solve the traffic congestion problems in Stillwater and across the river in Wisconsin, so he backs the four-lane bridge. He noted that funding from Minnesota and Wisconsin should be ready once the bridge plan gets Congressional approval.

Dayton recalled that he spoke before the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce a decade ago, when he was a U.S. senator, and the bridge project hasn't progressed much since then.

"It was at about the same place as it is today," he said. "It's not a project that satisfies everybody. There needs to be a modern crossing that is aesthetically palatable for this wonderful river."

Bachmann said she's optimistic that Congress will approve the bill to allow for the bridge to begin, noting that there is bi-partisan support from Wisconsin and Minnesota Congressional delegations. The key, however, is getting the measure approved in the U.S. Senate. Bachmann said Minnesota's U.S. senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are being approached about drafting a bill in the Senate to make the bridge a reality.

"It's time for this bridge to be built," Bachmann said. "It looks like we have all of the pieces coming together."

She said her bill should be considered soon, and then it will move onto the Senate.

John Soderberg, New Richmond, who has been working with bridge supporters for years, said he was encouraged by the tour and the meeting that followed.

"I'm more optimistic now than I've ever been," he said.

His optimism is buoyed by the fact that both Democratic and Republican elected officials are lining up to back the bill in Congress.

"This is the beginning of what we see as a conclusion," he said. "We have people from both sides of the aisle lining up to support it. It's what we've been waiting to see."

Bill Berndt, River Falls, tempered the optimism a bit. He encouraged bridge supporters across the region to contact their elected officials to encourage them to support the project.

"We have great support," he said. "We need to continue to work across the aisle and across the river until this is done. But I've learned that nothing is ever done until the bill is signed."

Western Wisconsin officials turned out in full force for Friday's event. Attendees included New Richmond Mayor Fred Horne, Somerset Village President Jeff Johnson, and directors with the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing: Soderberg, Kim Heinemann (Hudson Chamber of Commerce), Daryl Standafer (chairman of the St. Croix County Board), LouAnne Berg (J&L Steel Erectors, Hudson), and Bill Rubin (St. Croix Economic Development Corp). Also attending were Wisconsin state representatives Dean Knudson and John Murtha.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, current cost estimates for the proposed bridge range from $574 million to $690 million. Minnesota's share of the project would be $220 million to $380 million, while Wisconsin's portion will be between $250 million and $310 million.

The Sierra Club, which supports a smaller bridge project, issued a press release after the Dayton and Bachmann event. The statement noted that a smaller bridge would make the most sense from a financial and an environmental standpoint.

"Rather than pushing for a massive, expensive freeway-style bridge, we urge elected officials of both states to work together in quickly developing a new, modestly-scaled bridge that addresses the St. Croix valley's traffic congestion problems while respecting the river and taxpayers' pocketbooks," said Jim Rickard, Sierra Club North Star Chapter. "We stand committed to working with officials and other stakeholders on a solution to this long-standing dispute."

Following Friday's gathering, both Bachmann and Dayton helped out volunteers along the St. Croix River in downtown Stillwater as they filled sandbags for expected spring flooding.