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UPDATE: Wisconsin, Minnesota officials pledge support for Stillwater bridge

Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki (left) talks with Wisconsin State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (left center) and Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb (center right) about the current plans for replacing the Stillwater bridge.

The promotional push for a new bridge over the St. Croix River is picking up steam.

On Friday, Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb and Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel were among the officials who attended a meeting of the St. Croix River Crossing Coalition in Stillwater, Minn.

A non-profit group organized to advocate for the eventual replacement of the aging Stillwater lift bridge, the coalition invited area legislators and transportation officials to talk about the current status of the project and its prospects for funding.

Wisconsin State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf said the gathering gave Gottlieb, the state's new transportation secretary appointed by Gov. Scott Walker, a chance to hear about the need for a new bridge and see the old bridge for the first time.

"There is a coordinated effort from both states to move this project forward," Harsdorf said. "The new St. Croix River crossing is incredibly vital for our region's transportation infrastructure and we need action now. This project is a matter of public safety as well as regional economic development."

Gottlieb said that Wisconsin Gov. Walker strongly supports the bridge project. He noted that Wisconsin has already established the bonding authority necessary to pay for its portion of the bridge plan.

The state, however, does need to remove a previous restriction that would not allow Wisconsin to spend money on the bridge until the federal government provides about $75 million toward the project. It's uncertain if any federal funding will be available for the bridge replacement.

Gottlieb said he expects Wisconsin lawmakers to soon consider a proposal to remove the current restriction, paving the way for the construction of the span. Current plans call for the two states to split the cost of the new bridge.

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.

Minnesota already has set aside the money it needs to pay for its share of the bridge, although that funding could be in jeopardy if the project does not move forward by September, Harsdorf said.

The next major hurdle for the new river crossing is a vote in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives on a proposal to exempt the bridge project from the restrictions of the Wild and Scenic Riverway Act.

The bridge is presently in limbo because a federal judge said the National Park Service could not support a new span because the bridge would harm the scenic beauty of the region.

As a result, it will take action by Congress to allow for the construction of the bridge across the St. Croix River.

Harsdorf said the support the bridge is receiving from both Republicans and Democrats is encouraging.

"I commend our federal elected officials from both Minnesota and Wisconsin who are working together in a bipartisan fashion to move forward on legislation that will allow construction of a new St. Croix River Crossing," she said. "Time is of the essence."

The support from elected officials from both parties is extremely encouraging, Harsdorf said.

"I'm optimistic," she said of the chances for the bridge, which has been delayed for decades, to actually go through this time. "This project has seen one hurdle after the next. I'm optimistic it will happen now."

The group toured the Stillwater bridge, which was closed due to high water, following the meeting. Minnesota Department of Transportation officials answered questions about the current bridge and the proposed new bridge during the short tour.

Kevin Western, assistant state bridge engineer for the Minnesota DOT, said the span is safe, even though there are concerns about corrosion and deteriorating concrete on some parts of the bridge.

The bridge is inspected often, he said, and functions well as an important transportation link between the two states.

He noted that the bridge is scheduled for a $3 million repair project in the fall of 2012. That project will mean the bridge will be closed to traffic for two to three months.

At the close of the meeting. coalition member and New Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Russ Korpela said he was pleased with the tone of the gathering.

"It was great to see the support from a Wisconsin contingent," Korpela said, noting that a number of Minnesota elected officials have already toured the bridge and pledged their support. "It's another step in the progress of the bridge project. But there still is a lot of work to do."

Korpela said he was glad to hear that "funding won't be an issue," so the biggest hurdle now seems to be the Congressional exemption.

If that measure is approved, Korpela said he thinks the planning and eventual construction phases for a new bridge will begin rather quickly.