On the radar for 2012 in Washington County

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This artist rendering released by the Minnesota Department of Transportation shows an aerial view looking west that shows the proposed St. Croix River Crossing between Oak Park Heights, Minn., and St. Joseph, Wis.

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A new St. Croix River bridge, perhaps? Plans for a commuter train on busy Interstate 94 past Woodbury? More crime-fighting tools? Rising taxes or shrinking government? The crystal ball for Washington County in 2012 shows a flurry of fiscal and policy decisions. They come during a major election year -- and amid landmark changes in how money is raised and spent. Here are several key developments to watch:

A potential watershed year for St. Croix bridge project

Supporters and opponents acknowledge this is a do-or-die year to build a four-lane bridge at Oak Park Heights to replace traffic crossings at the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge. Without approval soon, time will run out for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which must complete major design and permitting work before funding expires in 2014.

Arguments over the bridge remain much the same after 30 years of debate. There's a reason for that, and it's known as the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Congress could decide in late January or early February whether to grant an exemption to that federal law, which protects the St. Croix and 202 other rivers nationwide from development. Bills by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar await votes in the full House and Senate, but action isn't guaranteed.

Transit gains speed

The biggest public transportation development of 2012 will come in March, when a long-awaited study of the Gateway Corridor along Interstate 94 is completed. The study will show whether buses or trains will work best to alleviate heavy vehicle traffic through Woodbury, Oakdale and Lake Elmo. That stretch of freeway, nicknamed Gateway Corridor for transit purposes, will someday feature transit that will shuttle commuters from the St. Croix River into downtown St. Paul and several stations along the route.

This year brings two more park-and-ride lots along the Rush Line Corridor commuter bus route, which begins in Forest Lake, makes a stop in White Bear Lake and ends in downtown St. Paul, where the Union Depot is undergoing construction. Several buses return to Forest Lake in the afternoon.

Now, two 300-stall park-and-ride lots will be built at County Road E and Interstate 35E in Vadnais Heights, and at County Road 14 and I-35E in Lino Lakes.

In the southeast metro, the Red Rock Corridor is building express bus ridership for the coming commuter rail line, which will run 30 miles from downtown Minneapolis through St. Paul and south to Hastings by 2020.

To draw new riders, rapid bus service to the southeast metro will be rerouted in 2012, and park-and-ride facilities will be built in Newport and Hastings.

Currently, park-and-ride lots in Cottage Grove and at Lower Afton Road in St. Paul let riders hop express buses to downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis and to the University of Minnesota. But those lots are often full.

In about eight years, Newport will serve as the corridor's gateway. Transit stops are planned for Cottage Grove, St. Paul near Lower Afton Road and Hastings, which currently has no transit links to downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis.

Incredible shrinking government

Local governments in Washington County, stripped of state and federal cash, will continue the trend toward reduced spending. With some exceptions, elected officials will continue their pledges of "core government," meaning that most spending will go to "essential" services such as law enforcement, roads and programs for vulnerable residents. Cities and counties have lost millions of dollars in recent years as state and federal governments pulled back funding that once paid for mandated programs. Elected officials in Washington County have been reluctant to raise more money through taxation -- a trend unlikely to change in a tumultuous election year.

Shelving traditional library management

Lake Elmo will begin a new chapter in library management this year that, if successful, could spread to other libraries. The city broke away from Washington County to operate its own library, taking $260,000 in taxation from the county library budget. Meanwhile, other cities such as Newport and Marine on St. Croix have retained their affiliation with Washington County but have assumed greater responsibility for their operations.

Law enforcers linking arms

At the Washington County Sheriff's Office, tracking criminal activity will become more efficient in 2012. "We're working with the 14 fire departments and the other nine law enforcement agencies within Washington County to put out our new records management system," said Sheriff Bill Hutton.

In a related development, Hutton and his counterpart in Polk County, Wis., will merge radio frequencies, allowing their dispatchers to communicate with each other. Washington County will install an 800 megahertz control station in the Polk County Sheriff's Office dispatch center in Balsam Lake.

In the county corrections department, there are plans to expand the use of a "search and seizure team" for high-risk probationers, and also to improve the system's response to veterans with mental health problems charged with a crime, said director Tom Adkins.

Building for the future

Numerous public works projects are planned for 2012 in and near Washington County.

The new Hwy. 61 bridge linking Washington and Dakota counties at Hastings will take shape in 2012. Although the bridge won't open for partial traffic until 2013, its superstructure will rise from new pilings driven into the Mississippi River. Construction will end in 2014.

Meanwhile, Washington County will start a major reconstruction project on a short -- but heavily traveled -- stretch of County Road 19 (Woodbury Drive) in Woodbury from Park Crossing to a half-mile south of Bailey Road (County Road 18).

An interchange reconstruction will begin at N. Hilton Trail and Hwy. 36 in Pine Springs. That project eventually will eliminate stoplights that cause a bottleneck as drivers turn north toward Mahtomedi.

Construction begins later this year on Woodbury's Bielenberg Gardens, a 30-acre retail and service center, which will be followed by more housing. The pedestrian-friendly center will be built on the southwest corner of Bailey Road and Radio Drive, west of the Bielenberg Sports Center.

Among many cities planning improvements is Stillwater, which will build a pedestrian plaza downtown that will link to the new Browns Creek State Trail. That trail will be built next summer on the old Minnesota Zephyr dinner train route from Stillwater to Grant.

In Cottage Grove, some costs have been coming in lower than anticipated for a $15 million public safety and City Hall building under construction this year. The Cottage Grove Police Department, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2012, will move from cramped quarters to its updated station.

When the building last expanded, the city's population was 20,800. Cottage Grove now has 34,589 residents and is projected to grow over the next 30 years to 66,000, according to the Metropolitan Council.

Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this story. Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles Joy Powell • 651-925-5038 Twitter: @joystrib

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