WASHINGTON - A proposal to build a $700 million, four-lane bridge across the St. Croix appears to be gaining congressional support. After a hearing on Wednesday, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the national parks, forests and public lands subcommittee, said he expected the bill could pass the House.
"Honestly, it's a dumb issue," Bishop said. "It should have been solved a long time ago. It's being held up by the federal government."
In the Senate, Democrat Amy Klobuchar said she and Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., plan to introduce a similar bill in the next few weeks.
The House bill, brought by Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, asks for an exemption to the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The National Park Service ruled last year that the proposed bridge would violate that act. Only Congress can bypass the act.
Bachmann first brought the bill last year, but in the then- Democratic-controlled House, her proposal went nowhere. This year, her party is in the majority.
Bachmann's bill does not allocate funding for the project. While critics have accused her of seeking an "earmark" for the bridge, Bachmann said in an interview on Wednesday that federal funds would not be needed. She also said that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently assured her that Wisconsin would fund its side of the project.
Wisconsin has a requirement that the federal government contribute $75 million to a border bridge project, but state legislators are considering a proposal to remove that stipulation.
The proposed St. Croix bridge is a divisive issue for Minnesota politicians that does not break along party lines. Bachmann, Klobuchar and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton support the project, while Rep. Betty McCollum and former Vice President Walter Mondale, both Democrats, oppose it. Democratic Sen. Al Franken has not taken a position.
The proposed bridge would replace the Stillwater Lift Bridge, a project that's long been discussed in Minnesota. The National Park Service approved the plan in 2005, but it reversed course last year following a judge's ruling in a lawsuit by the Sierra Club.
At Wednesday's hearing, Bachmann, Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki and Lakeview Hospital President Curt Geissler testified in favor of the bridge, while Oak Park Heights Mayor David Beaudet voiced his opposition. McCollum submitted written testimony against Bachmann's bill.
Bachmann said the lift bridge is 80 years old and overwhelmed with traffic. "This is an issue of how much we will pay in dollars -- and possibly lives -- before we act," Bachmann said.
Beaudet argued that the four-lane bridge was too large and expensive. "The project is out of sight in terms of cost and scale," he said.
Stephen Whitesell, a National Park Service official, said the federal government was concerned about the precedent Bachmann's bill could set for future exemptions to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
For Bishop and other subcommittee members, the hearing was a first taste of the bridge debate that's dragged on for years in Minnesota. Bishop questioned why the area near the bridge was considered scenic when a power plant was located nearby. "It's difficult for me to understand the higher standard," he said.
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723