Critics: St. Croix bridge a cash hog

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2011 - 10:38 PM

$360 million for the span would be better spent on state projects elsewhere that would benefit more people, legislators say.

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This is a rendering of the proposed four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River.

Photo: Minnesota Department of Transportation, Associated Press

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Opposition to spending $360 million for Minnesota's share of a new St. Croix River bridge is growing among some state legislators who want the money released for transportation needs that will benefit a larger number of residents.

Spending that sum on top of $100 million or more to improve highways leading to a potential new Vikings stadium in Arden Hills, the legislators say, would leave the state desperately short of cash needed to fix hundreds of deteriorating roads and bridges.

"These are both mega-transportation projects that will both simultaneously suck up a lot of money," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, his party's lead representative on the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee.

"I don't think that's the case at all," said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo. "I don't frankly understand why all these Minneapolis and St. Paul legislators don't want us to have this bridge. This is a public safety issue."

The $690 million Minnesota Department of Transportation "preferred" proposal, endorsed by Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota's two U.S. Senate Democrats, promotes a four-lane bridge at Oak Park Heights. A competing plan by a group formed this summer, Stillwater Sensible Bridge Partnership, floats a smaller bridge in Stillwater priced at $394 million.

Supporters of the bigger bridge -- years in the works -- found reason for optimism this fall as legislation in Congress that would allow construction steamed through committees in the House and Senate. Those bills, introduced by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., seek to exempt the bridge from the federal law that protects the St. Croix River from development.

But with Congress mired in confrontations over taxes and spending, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calling for a "working group" to further explore the bridge issue, opponents of the bigger bridge say they now sense a window of opportunity.

"It's too expensive, it costs more than the I-35 bridge with one-sixth the traffic, and would fund sprawl in Wisconsin," said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, one of 30 Minnesota and Wisconsin legislators who recently wrote a letter to Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. "Everything will be delayed that much more because we're building an oversized bridge."

Rural legislators, Dibble said, will oppose the current St. Croix River bridge proposal when they see how little money remains for other transportation projects.

The group lobbying for the bigger bridge, the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, said a federal "working group" would duplicate years of study by federal and state agencies, local governments and community groups.

"In the end, stakeholders achieved consensus: the St. Croix River Crossing is the best solution to balance the region's unique transportation, environmental protection, and historic preservation needs," the coalition said in a statement.

But Roger Tomten, a Stillwater architect who helped draft the alternative plan, said recent findings by two independent engineers deserve a hearing with the governor. Earlier this year, proponents of the alternative plan met once with MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel but couldn't get a second meeting after Dayton publicly endorsed the bigger bridge, Tomten said.

Dayton has "consistently and clearly" stated his support for the bigger bridge, spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said this week. Allegations that Minnesota will run short of money for other road and bridge projects "are not based in fact," she said.

All the legislators who signed the Nov. 8 letter to Dayton and Walker are Democrats, although party preference doesn't seem to matter in the bridge debate. Dayton, a DFLer, walked on the Stillwater Lift Bridge with Republican presidential candidate Bachmann last winter to show his support for a new four-lane bridge. Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, has signed onto Klobuchar's bill.

"I still simply do not understand how our two U.S. senators came to this decision, because they represent the entire state," said Minnesota legislator Alice Hausman, a DFLer from St. Paul. "We've got major corridors crying out for some investment. They all deserve a solution."

Critics of the current bridge plan have allies in two Minnesota Democrats in Congress, Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, who recently introduced a House bill that seeks to limit the amount of money spent on a St. Croix River bridge.

A map compiled by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy using MnDOT data shows 1,170 structurally deficient bridges in the state, most outside the metro area.

Hornstein described concern over money set aside for the St. Croix bridge plan as "an important voice" that will grow louder as more legislators seek infrastructure improvements in their districts. He called on the governor to reconsider all possible alternatives to the current plan.

"Not only have things changed but we certainly want to convey to Congress and the broader public that this is by no means a consensus position," Hornstein said. "It's in fact divisive and controversial."

But Lohmer and several other legislators on both sides of the river say a bigger bridge will meet the needs of a growing St. Croix region.

"Why would we wait for something terrible to happen?" she asked.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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