Sun glinting off the river, passengers on the sold-out cruise ship neared the construction site for the St. Croix bridge, its towers soaring 20 stories above them.
"I look at this as the Golden Gate Bridge of Minnesota," a state highway engineer boomed over speakers on all three decks. "If you get pictures of yourself, you can show the kids and grandkids that you were here to see it built."
The state of Minnesota has a bridge to sell you. And it's doing so in every way it can think of.
The cruise ship tours this summer are just one piece of a nearly $2 million public relations campaign staged by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to "build support" for the St. Croix River bridge — the controversial $600 million project once ripped by a federal judge for its "disruptive" impact on the protected river it spans.
No less than former Vice President Walter Mondale, who as a U.S. senator sponsored the legislation creating Wild and Scenic status for rivers like the St. Croix, opposed the bridge and suggested it violated a sacred trust.
"It's a tough fight when you go against what the highway department wants," Mondale said last year.
A 30-page internal communications plan for the bridge project, drafted by Minneapolis PR firm Himle Rapp & Co., has the feel of a political campaign. It calls for frequent, even daily, social-media updates showing "clear signs of progress," and for bridge "ambassadors" to write letters to the editor.
It also speaks of a first-ever school curriculum centered on the bridge, part of a "gold standard" array of communications tactics shaping a template for similar PR campaigns in the future.
The Himle Rapp plan, released by MnDOT to the Star Tribune weeks after it was first promised, states that one goal of frequent online communication is to "build community support." Even though the bridge is going up, the strategy suggests that public skepticism about the project's cost, scale and environmental impact remains.
"Remember, it took an act of Congress for this bridge to actually happen," said Kevin Gutknecht, MnDOT's chief spokesman.
John Gfrerer of Anoka, a cruise ship passenger, said that he had warmed to the bridge, but remained dubious. It's "a bridge to almost nowhere," he said. "It takes you to Somerset! I mean, come on: How needed was it?"
In fact, population expectations for western Wisconsin have dropped significantly since the early days of the bridge fight. The growth rate plunged after 2005, and demographers have concluded that the bridge's impact was unlikely to change that trend.
Gutknecht countered that "you had an 80-year-old lift bridge [in Stillwater] that was not going to last. What do we do? It was not a decision made by MnDOT alone, and many in the area were in favor."
Boosting public support
As a public agency, MnDOT is hardly alone in seeking to boost public support for a project. Slick PR campaigns buttressed by consultants are "absolutely" the trend across the nation, said Aileen Cho, senior editor for transportation with the construction trade journal ENR: Engineering News Record.
"Agencies are spending tax dollars to say, 'This is cool, buy into it!' " she said.
One notable example: the $4 billion Tappan Zee bridge going up on the Hudson River in New York. That project has its own magazine celebrating the bridge, with eight issues downloadable since 2013.
In addition to the $1.7 million consultant's communications contract, cost-shared with Wisconsin's transportation department, MnDOT has assigned one of its own full-time communications specialists to do nothing but work on the St. Croix bridge project.
The only previous time that's happened, Gutknecht said, was the aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse. At the time, the agency faced national and international inquiries on the collapse and the new bridge alike.
MnDOT's PR consultants warn against blasting out social media mindlessly. "Be sure to communicate when you have something to say — not just because it's Tuesday." But they added that announcements should come often.
The flow of excitement often comes off as less than earthshaking, such as the June 30 announcement that "Pier 11 now has segment lifters assembled and operational!"
But for a project that took a hit when it was delayed a year till 2017, Gutknecht said, social media is used "to show progress — 'We're getting things done, today we put in X' — and that's a big deal."
Gutknecht pointed to the slow fade of independent journalism as one motivation for the agency's vigorous communications efforts, especially in the east metro area.
"The media doesn't cover us like it used to," he said. "I used to field calls from two different [daily] papers and a lot of community papers. That's been reduced. … We haven't grown in [staff] numbers here but we work much harder, using new tools and focusing our efforts in differing ways."
Rising out of the water
Critics say the danger of allowing government officials to control their own narrative emerged when MnDOT asserted editorial control over a $50,000 book project on the bridges of Washington County.
"They've spared no expense," said historian Donald Empson of Stillwater, who tangled with MnDOT over the book, commissioned as part of the agreement to build the St. Croix bridge.
"Someone talks to groups, they have their own little publications — it's massive PR! How the hell does this come under 'building highways?' "
The Legislature expressed the same feeling decades ago about government self-promotion. In 1965 it passed a law forbidding state agencies from using "funds for the payment of the salary or expenses of a publicity representative" — a law that exempted MnDOT and others.
The Washington County Historical Society oversaw work on the book, but Executive Director Brent Peterson grew increasingly exasperated with MnDOT's edits.
"They didn't like the 'tone of the book,' whatever that meant," Peterson said. "They wanted it to be something else rather than a history book."
An independent state agency later questioned the tone as well. But Peterson said MnDOT shouldn't have been the one to red-pencil a text in which it was itself a prime player.
The cruise boat scheme, paid for by passenger tickets, was "submitted to a national contest" as a PR concept, Gutknecht said.
"People are interested," he said. "It's an awesome thing, rising up out of the water, with 100-ton segments hanging in the air: 'Oh man, what is this?' "
People do react that way.
"I probably took 400 pictures last year myself on one of these cruises, and I have 250 this time," said Charlotte Thompson of Roseville, laughing on the recent bridge cruise. With her was Wally Sapp of Cottage Grove, who spoke of watching "history being made."
But Thompson also spoke quietly of community concerns that the bridge would "kill" downtown Stillwater. And when Sapp was told about the "bridge to nowhere" sentiment, he nodded: "I tend to agree."