A stalemate over a new St. Croix River bridge took a potentially huge U-turn on Thursday when Gov. Mark Dayton said that "all possibilities have been reopened for consideration."

Dayton's statement suggested room for fresh alternatives to a longstanding Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) proposal for a four-lane super-bridge at Oak Park Heights. Critics have long assailed the proposal as too big and too costly, arguing that it would overwhelm the St. Croix's scenic beauty.

The current proposal fell into a state of paralysis in October when the National Park Service (NPS) ruled that a "massive" bridge would harm the river's recreational and scenic values.

The governor doesn't favor a specific bridge plan but wants to meet with MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel in coming weeks for a briefing, said Katharine Tinucci, Dayton's press secretary.

Several Minnesota and Wisconsin environmental and social action groups said on Thursday that they had asked Dayton to "shelve plans" for the bigger bridge. A more modest bridge would reduce harm to the federally protected river, divert traffic from Stillwater and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, the coalition wrote in a Jan. 31 letter to Dayton.

"For years, this regional and national treasure has been threatened by a highway project that calls for the construction of an immense, freeway-style bridge through the heart of the Lower St. Croix National Scenic Riverway," said the letter, which was signed by the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and 25 other groups.

MnDOT has invested 11 years and $21 million preparing the current proposal, said spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.

Emotions have run high since a federal judge last spring ordered the NPS, which has administrative responsibility for the river, to reexamine its earlier approval of the bridge proposal. The Sierra Club had sued to stop federal funding for the bridge, estimated to cost at least $640 million, on grounds that it would violate the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

"The situation remains the same as it did when I became U.S. senator 10 years ago," Dayton said on Thursday. "Three federal agencies, all claiming jurisdiction, cannot agree on how Minnesota and Wisconsin can proceed. At this point, all possibilities have been reopened for consideration."

First priority: Detour

Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki said on Thursday that changing the current MnDOT plan would take time because of all the legal agreements involved. "The bridge design that was agreed to by the stakeholders group, it's gone through extensive review and there are [reams] of reports produced looking at options," he said.

However, Harycki said that the city's first objective is to detour heavy commuter traffic from neighborhoods and off the Lift Bridge. "As we're twiddling our thumbs the bridge continues to rust, it continues to age and it deteriorates every year," he said.

Gary Kriesel, a Washington County commissioner, said that hurrying into construction of a smaller bridge might prove regrettable. "The last thing we would want to do is build a bridge that would be put at capacity as soon as the economy turns around," he said.

The coalition wrote Dayton that the proposed blufftop-to-blufftop bridge, planned for 6 miles north of the eight-lane Interstate 94 bridge, was designed to accommodate large trucks traveling at 65 miles per hour.

"Its expense and extravagance can't be defended, from an investment perspective, in the current fiscal crisis facing Wisconsin," said Denny Caneff, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has introduced a bill in Congress that would exempt a new bridge from federal law, but Deb Ryun of the St. Croix River Association said her organization opposes any congressional action that would weaken the law.

"Such legislation would be fiscally and environmentally irresponsible and would set a terrible precedent for wild and scenic rivers throughout the country," said Michael Soules of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. He represented the Sierra Club in successfully challenging the federal government's initial approval of the current bridge project.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342