Decades of debate over the proposed St. Croix River crossing ended Thursday with a five-minute vote in the U.S. House, which approved the plan overwhelmingly and sent it to President Obama for his signature.
The 339-80 House vote easily surpassed the two-thirds needed to clear the project on an expedited basis, which became necessary after Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton set a March 15 deadline for final action by Congress.
The Senate approved an identical measure last month by a unanimous vote, a move that belied some of the discord underlying the $690 million project. The long-delayed bridge plan was before Congress because it needed a federal exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a landmark piece of 1960s legislation sponsored by former U.S. Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale.
Mondale lobbied against the bridge, calling it “a brutal assault on one of the most magnificent rivers in America.”
The bridge standoff divided environmentalists, who remain opposed, and labor-backed Democrats who joined with Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann, the main House backer of the project, which stands in her current district.
For Bachmann, the final passage represented a singular legislative achievement after three terms in Congress and a run for the GOP presidential nomination.
“This is it!” she enthused in a statement after the vote. “After decades of bureaucratic holdups and frivolous lawsuits from radical environmentalists, the people of the St. Croix River Valley will finally have their bridge. I represent the most patient people in the nation and I could not be more thrilled about the outcome.”
Opposition to the project bill was led by Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, whose new district under the 2010 census will include the bridge site along Hwy. 36 in Oak Park Heights, where the mayor and city council have expressed opposition to the millions of dollars in related utility upgrades they say city residents will have to pay.
Said McCollum: “Every policy debate has two sides and I worked hard to reflect the voices of Minnesotans in the 4th District, as well as those Stillwater and Oak Park Heights residents who are deeply concerned about this mega-bridge project.”
McCollum, however, found herself at odds with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who championed the bill in the Senate with the backing of Dayton and Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who formed a broad bipartisan coalition on both sides of the river.
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Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday he expects to call a special legislative session for lawmakers to help businesses on Lake Mille Lacs that are struggling due to the decline of walleye fishing.
Mille Lacs resorts and other area businesses could face tough times if the walleye season is cut short, as seems likely.