Utility costs for Oak Park Heights, not yet resolved, loom large after Congress acted.
The push for a new St. Croix River bridge has arrived at the doorstep of little Oak Park Heights, a city of 4,700 residents now facing millions of dollars in construction costs and the decision whether to approve the project.
Nagging disagreements over who will pay to move utilities along Hwy. 36 -- the main highway through the city's business district -- remained unsettled Friday, a day after a long-awaited, controversial bill allowing construction breezed through the U.S. House.
"I've been saying all along that a regional project needs a regional cost solution, and our little city ought not to be bearing the full brunt of the cost," said Les Abrahamson, one of five members of the City Council. "I don't want to be in a position where this project is approved and the only thing standing in front of it is me and my four peers. And that's kind of where we're going."
Oak Park Heights is immediately south of Stillwater and its iconic 80-year-old Lift Bridge that connects to western Wisconsin. But while some of the loudest lobbying for the $690 million four-lane bridge has come from Stillwater leaders who want to chase commuter congestion out of the heart of their city, it's Oak Park Heights -- home to the new bridge -- that will inherit expenses and potentially far greater traffic.
"There are no benefits to the city of Oak Park Heights for this project. It's all negative," said Mayor David Beaudet, a bridge opponent, who sees Stillwater as unloading its problem on its smaller, poorer neighbor.
Another City Council member, Mark Swenson, sees the matter differently. "I don't see the bridge as being detrimental to Oak Park Heights," said Swenson, viewing the city as part of a regional team effort. "It's down to the money right now. As a whole the majority of the council supports the bridge project."
State and federal officials who have promoted the bridge as a regional issue have yet to find an answer for Oak Park Heights, a city that fears steep tax assessments on property owners to cover as much as $20 million for utility relocations and other costs.
The City Council voted 5-0 in February for a resolution warning against estimated average annual tax increases of $433 per property owner. In addition, the city hasn't granted "municipal consent," a legality that would allow the bridge project to proceed.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., warned of the city's potential tax increases in her quest to stop legislation that would exclude the bridge from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the federal law that protects the St. Croix. The two Minnesota lawmakers who introduced bills allowing the bridge, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Michele Bachmann, declined Friday to offer a solution for the city's financial concerns. They referred questions to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the lead agency in the two-state project.
Their legislation, which passed the Senate in January and the House on Thursday, awaits President Obama's approval. But even if he signs the bill into law as expected, enabling Minnesota and Wisconsin to begin building the bridge by 2014, nothing will happen without a resolution in Oak Park Heights.
"It's like we're an afterthought," said Mike Runk, another City Council member. A recent letter from Gov. Mark Dayton, setting a March 15 deadline for congressional action on the bridge, was copied to all Stillwater City Council members but wasn't sent to Oak Park Heights, he said.
"Here we have this big regional project being done and we're just a little city and the fact that the bridge is going to be built right here, we're going to be stuck with big bills," said Runk, who supports the project in concept. "When it comes to what might happen to the city, it's more difficult to support it."
MnDOT's east metro manager, Adam Josephson, said cost estimates vary substantially depending on several scenarios for improving and relocating utilities. One of the newer ideas, he said, involves a proposal to move city utilities outside the state right of way along Hwy. 36. The city's engineer now is working with MnDOT engineers to review the possibilities, he said.
Under one scenario of minimal disturbance to utilities, the cost to Oak Park Heights could run as low as $1 million if the federal government paid 80 percent, Josephson said. The city has held to the $20 million estimate out of worry of unseen costs and future relocation work that might be required.
"Now we really need to get into the engineering details about what is impacted and what isn't," said Josephson, who's confident an agreement will be reached. "Throwing these numbers around between $1 million and $20 million doesn't really get us anywhere."
Meanwhile, dozens of business owners along Hwy. 36 await a decision. D.J. Raduenz, whose family has owned Stillwater Motors along the highway for decades, said most merchants support the project because it would create a safer and more efficient thoroughfare and improved Hwy. 36 frontage roads.
"They're tricky, they're deadly, they're dangerous to cross," Raduenz, a Chamber of Commerce board member, said of the frontage roads and their many intersections. But he said business owners also fear losing customers during construction, and some acknowledge they might have to relocate when entrance roads are reconfigured.
"It doesn't go without its pain and suffering," he said.
Bridge supporters such as Klobuchar and Bachmann now need to make sure that "our concerns aren't just dismissed as Oak Park Heights' problem," said Abrahamson, an insurance agent who said he's seen the need for a new bridge since he was a boy.
"I have to do what's right for the taxpayers," he said. "I just want to be mindful that we don't create something that's going to be a hardship on Oak Park Heights homeowners and business owners."
Staff writer Kevin Diaz contributed to this story.
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles