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Franken, Kohl back St. Croix bridge proposal

U.S. senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) introduced bipartisan legislation on Friday to move the St. Croix Bridge project forward.

The proposed measure would exempt the project from the Wild and Scenic Riverway Act that protects the St. Croix from development that would harm the environment or viewshed, thus allowing for the bridge construction.

Franken's support of the project was the biggest news of the day. He had previously indicated that he needed to think about his opinion of the plan.

"While I don't think the proposed four-lane bridge is a perfect bridge by any means, the people of Stillwater and the St. Croix Valley need a new bridge and one that can be built without further years of delay," he said. "I would have preferred a less expensive option but this is the bridge that's been chosen through a decades-long process, and I support its construction."

Franken admitted that the proposed waiver to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act would be the first exemption for a bridge over a river covered by the law.

But he said the Stillwater project is one where an exception should be granted.

"I certainly don't want this to signal an open season on the act," he added.

Kohl's support was also good news for bridge supporters.

John Soderberg, co-chairman of the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, said the news that Franken and Kohl are behind the bill is "terrific."

"We're very encouraged by this," he said. "There's no reason now why we can't get this done."

Even though there is momentum for getting the bridge constructed, Soderberg said he's learned that you can't take anything for granted.

"We'll continue to take it one step at a time," he said.

Soderberg urged the "people who use the bridge every day" to continue to write their elected officials about the need for the bridge. Continued pressure can only help, he said.

Klobuchar has led the effort in the Senate to draft the legislation which would authorize the project that both Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker support.

"For the past few months I have been working with federal agencies and other Congressional offices to introduce a bipartisan bill which would replace a bridge that is outdated for the needs of the community," said Klobuchar. "I will continue to work with federal, state, and local officials to replace the 80-year-old bridge while making sure we include important safeguards to protect the beauty of the St. Croix river."

"St. Croix County has been growing faster than any other place in our state," Kohl said. "That kind of growth necessitates investment on a similar scale. We must have infrastructure that is safe and reflective of the needs of our communities."

However, Kohl said, the project must also respect the region's natural resources.

"I believe that these goals can be met, and will be met with continued bipartisan cooperation, as well as cooperation between our state and local governments and federal officials," he said.

"Replacing the St. Croix Bridge is critical to economic activity in both Wisconsin and Minnesota," Johnson said. "It should have been done years ago. I'm happy to join in this bipartisan, bicameral effort."

The Senators consulted the Department of Transportation and National Park Service on the legislation which also contains a package of mitigation efforts to protect the scenic St. Croix River.

These measures were agreed to in 2006 by the National Park Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources. The mitigation plan would help promote scenic and recreational values of the St. Croix River by eliminating existing man-made structures, protecting river bluff lands, park land restoration and ensuring public boat access.

Rep Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has introduced similar bipartisan legislation in the House with Representatives Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) and Sean Duffy (R-Wis.).

The current St. Croix River crossing is at the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge; however, as the bridge has aged, closings for structural and vehicle collision repairs and maintenance inspections have increased.

In addition, the bridge's unique function as a lift bridge, which lifts frequently to allow boats to travel the St. Croix River, is a source of severe traffic congestion.