A "working group" was proposed - just as two state Democrats filed a cap on St. Croix bridge funding.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The chief antagonists in the long-standing St. Croix River crossing dispute emerged from a closed-door summit in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday calling for a new "working group" to forge an agreement.
But they remained far apart on how to achieve consensus on their opposing visions for a new bridge linking Minnesota and Wisconsin.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has sponsored legislation that would clear the way for the $690 million bridge project to divert traffic from the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge, said she remains committed.
"Replacing a bridge that's basically rusting out, that's causing huge traffic congestion, that's been an issue for 30 years, that's for the state," said the Minnesota Democrat, who has joined forces with U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to seek environmental clearances for a new span.
The meeting came hours after a new bridge bill was filed in the U.S. House by Minnesota Democrats Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, who oppose the size and scope of the proposed bridge and are seeking to place a $574 million limit on any bridge that would use federal funds.
"With 1,149 structurally deficient bridges, there are plenty of bridges around the state to use that money," said Bill Harper, McCollum's chief of staff.
Bachmann did not attend the summit, but released a statement calling the efforts of McCollum and Ellison a "futile attempt" to block the project.
While some environmentalists have raised objections to any bridge over the St. Croix River, Klobuchar noted that federal officials have made clear that any new span outside the footprint of the current bridge would need a congressional exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
That point was underscored by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who attended the meeting as did U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "The law is clear on what our responsibility is," said Salazar, whose agency does not support an exemption.
Klobuchar and other bridge backers have touted the support of LaHood, who called the meeting with representatives from Minnesota and Wisconsin. While LaHood has expressed support for a new span, he hasn't backed any particular bill or bridge design.
"We can't take a position on legislation," LaHood said after the meeting. "We don't get elected. That's what these guys get elected to do around here."
LaHood recently helped broker a contentious deal to fund a rail extension to Dulles Airport in northern Virginia, but it remains to be seen what he can do in Minnesota. "Let's work together, put together a working group, see how the legislation goes, and reach a consensus," he said.
The bridge project, the largest in Minnesota history, would begin in 2014 if Congress passes an exemption to federal law.
But any St. Croix bridge project also faces a 2014 expiration date for federal and state funds, said Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel. "We're keeping an eye on the schedule, and how we're going to deliver this bridge when the legislation comes through," Sorel said.
Going back to the drawing board on a scaled-down version would not meet the current timetable, Sorel said. "Any other option would require us to start over," he said. Given seven or eight years of planning, he added, "the inflation costs would just eat us up."
Said McCollum: "Finding consensus is clearly important because today's meeting revealed Minnesota is now at risk of losing millions of dollars in federal transportation funding."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.