Push begins for slower, lower St. Croix River crossing

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2011 - 9:09 AM

Proponents of a smaller bridge with less speedy traffic say it would save $400 million. But others say that plan wouldn't work.

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The alternative Stillwater bridge proposed by the Sensible Stillwater Bridge coalition is a narrower, three-lane bridge that would angle from south of Stillwater, at Oak Park Heights, to where the Stillwater Lift Bridge meets the Wisconsin side of the river.

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Competition emerged Tuesday in the furious debate over a new St. Croix River bridge near Stillwater.

Members of the new Sensible Stillwater Bridge coalition, referring to the existing $690 million bridge proposal as a "boondoggle," unveiled plans for a lower bridge with a slower speed limit that they said would save money for other pressing Minnesota bridge needs and protect the scenic St. Croix at the same time.

"The world has changed since this gigantic bridge was approved more than a decade ago," said Peter Gove, board chair of the St. Croix River Association and a leader of the new coalition. In an afternoon news conference in St. Paul, he condemned the current four-lane proposal as excessively costly to taxpayers and hurtful to the St. Croix River, which is protected under the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The proposed three-lane bridge, which proponents say would cost $283 million, would angle from the south end of Stillwater near the Oasis Cafe to where the Stillwater Lift Bridge meets the Wisconsin side of the river. The speed limit would be 40 miles per hour, compared with 65 mph on the current proposal.

Roger Tomten, a Stillwater architect, described the design as an original version of an earlier plan that got lost as political momentum grew for the bigger bridge.

Nothing new, mayor says

But Stillwater's mayor, Ken Harycki, said the alternative plan invites disturbance of historic sites, excessive earth-moving on the Stillwater side of the river and disruption of the city's view from downtown.

"Instead of seeing the beautiful green cliffs of Wisconsin, you'd be looking at the underside of the bridge," said Harycki, a co-chair of the Coalition for a St. Croix River Crossing. That group supports the current bridge proposal.

"We've been down this path before," Harycki said. "It's an interesting idea, but it's been studied to death and ultimately was discarded."

Gove was critical of a 4-1 decision by the Stillwater City Council last week to donate $80,000 out of a city tax-increment financing fund to the coalition that Harycki chairs.

"It's time to end this taxpayer-funded campaign to build this boondoggle over the St. Croix to the detriment of taxpayers and a long-protected riverway," Gove said.

Endorsement of the alternative plan came from Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan national budget watchdog organization. Ryan Alexander, the group's president, said in a statement that Minnesota should consider the new proposal "to determine if it can meet the needs of the region's travelers at a far lower cost to taxpayers."

Under the existing plan, which would build a new bridge at Oak Park Heights and cross the river to St. Joseph Township, Wis., Minnesota would pay as much as $380 million. Wisconsin would pay about $310 million.

Gove's group includes members of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Transit for Livable Communities and River Alliance of Wisconsin, among others.

Another change in support

Another ally, state Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul, said at Tuesday's news conference that she no longer supports a four-lane bridge because it would bring an "explosion of development" in Wisconsin, funded by Minnesota taxpayers.

Speaking to concerns over safety on the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge, which a new bridge would replace, Hausman said Minnesota has many other deficient bridges that serve many more people.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., each have introduced bills in Congress that would allow the current four-lane bridge plan to move forward.

Gove questioned why Minnesota would pay $300 million or more for its share of the proposed bridge "during a time of severe budget struggles in both states." A smaller, slower bridge could be finished in the same frame as a larger bridge and could accommodate traffic for years to come, he said.

Three St. Croix Valley architects -- Tod Drescher, Beth Diem and Tomten -- designed the new proposal. It differs from the current proposal in height and width, being smaller, but the bridge's length would be comparable. The alternative bridge would be about 100 feet lower than the current plan and about half as wide, Gove said.

One of the three lanes under the new proposal would vary in direction according to peak traffic times.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342 Twitter: @stribgiles

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