Nearly four months after the ribbon-cutting that opened it to traffic, the once controversial and long-in-the-making bridge spanning the St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin stands as an aesthetically striking testament to a unique and welcome blend of political cooperation, cost-sharing, patience and neighborly resolve.
The product of two decades of debate is a structure that enhances safety, commerce and the area’s quality of life while protecting the national treasure that is the St. Croix River Valley.
From the deck of the 5,000-foot-long bridge more than 100 feet above the river, motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists can see for miles in each direction along a gorge that is protected by the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and soak in its four-season beauty.
Built at a cost of $646 million with funds from Minnesota and Wisconsin, the bridge satisfies most of the needs of a host of varied interests, from area residents to businesses, historic preservationists and environmentalists. And its bluff-to-bluff design makes it a landmark that will define the region for decades to come.
The officially unnamed bridge, currently known as the St. Croix River bridge, replaces the historic and famed Stillwater Lift Bridge, which carried traffic across the St. Croix for more than 80 years. The Lift Bridge’s decadeslong workhorse status will not be forgotten; in two years it will become part of a 5-mile-long trail that crosses the river and loops over the pedestrian walkway on the new bridge about a mile downstream.
The Lift Bridge’s two-lane bottleneck-producing tendencies over the river and traffic-halting impact through downtown Stillwater will not be missed.
“People are not going to be waiting in long traffic lines anymore just to get into downtown,” said longtime Stillwater businessman Jeff Chilson, owner of the Mad Capper bar and restaurant on the city’s Main Street. “It’s been a positive … This town is going to pop.”
Early reviews of the bridge are favorable. Its walking and biking paths have been a big hit. Even on a recent, raw November day folks briskly strolled along the nearly milelong span of the bridge past lookout points where they could sit on more comfortable days and take in the river’s natural beauty.
Vehicle traffic has been vibrant, too, although the Minnesota Department of Transportation will not conduct official traffic counts until early next year after some of the novelty of the new bridge has worn off, said MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.
But according to figures compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, more than 28,000 vehicles a day have been using the four-lane span since it opened in August. That figure is considerably more than the 17,000 crossings per day recorded at the Lift Bridge before it closed. By 2030, traffic planners expect the new bridge to handle 48,000 vehicles per day with a capacity for 71,500.
One big unknown that bears watching, however, is whether the bridge will bring new traffic issues if the accessibility it creates to new areas leads to residential and commercial development on both sides of the river.
For now, Govs. Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Scott Walker of Wisconsin deserve credit for help making this bridge a reality, as do former U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who both worked the halls of Congress for this project. And add Wisconsin congressmen Sean Duffy, a Republican, and Ron Kind, a Democrat, to the list of elected officials who made the bridge possible.
But credit is also due to myriad local officials and interest groups who persevered for years in favor of the bridge when its outcome was anything but certain.