The ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico will delay a new federal government evaluation of the proposed St. Croix River Crossing bridge.
The fate of the four-lane bridge, rising substantially in cost over the 40 years it's been debated, could hang on the evaluation of the project, which had been anticipated in July but now is expected later this summer.
In March, a federal judge ruled that a "massive" bridge south of Stillwater would have a "dramatic and disruptive" influence on the river's scenery.
Ruling on a Sierra Club lawsuit, Judge Michael Davis blocked the proposed $668 million bridge project on grounds it violated the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. He said the National Park Service (NPS) can't authorize the current proposal unless it issues a new "Section 7 evaluation" that addresses the court's concerns.
While the Lower St. Croix where the bridge would be built lies in a state-managed zone, the NPS oversees its management plans under federal law.
The revised evaluation now is under "internal review" by the U.S. Department of Interior, said Chris Stein, NPS superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The agency's involvement in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill will delay the evaluation's public release, he said.
Stein said a few months ago that the NPS wouldn't appeal the judge's ruling but instead would better explain to the court why the agency supports the most recent Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) proposal after opposing a similar one in 1996.
The difference, NPS has said, is that the current proposal contains a "mitigation package" of shoreline improvements that would reduce the bridge's environmental consequences.
The proposed four-lane, 3,460-foot bridge would launch toward Wisconsin from Oak Park Heights, about a mile south of Stillwater. It would be built to accommodate an estimated 50,000 vehicle crossings a day.
The 1931 Stillwater Lift Bridge, now crossed by more than 18,000 vehicles daily, would become a pedestrian and bicycle crossing as part of a 4.7-mile loop trail that would also cross the new bridge.
Opponents of the new bridge, including the Sierra Club, have seized on the judge's opinion as an opportunity to derail the current plan in favor of a smaller, more affordable bridge. The club had complained in its lawsuit that the bridge as currently proposed is environmentally intrusive on a river that has federal protection.
"We're hoping that they'll reconsider," said Margaret Levin, state director of the club's North Star Chapter in Minneapolis. The Sierra Club won't speculate on its response until it sees the new evaluation, she said. But the Sierra Club and other opponents have sent letters of protest to two federal agencies, asking that officials scrap the current bridge plan.
"To conclude otherwise would not only irreparably harm the Lower St. Croix's scenic, recreational and biological resources, but would also set a terrible precedent for wild and scenic rivers around the county," said the letter sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The other was sent to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The letters were signed by more than two dozen organizations, including the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Transit for Livable Communities, Fresh Energy and Audubon Minnesota. Even if the new evaluation survives another possible court challenge from the Sierra Club, federal funding remains elusive.
"Current project assumptions state that the project construction schedule is contingent upon extraordinary federal funding, above and beyond the normal federal appropriation to the states," according to the U.S. Highway Administration. Under current estimates, Minnesota's share of the cost would be $380 million if construction started in 2013.
Stein said recently that his agency is completing a new evaluation but can't disclose its contents until higher-ups in Washington, D.C. review the document.
"They're being tight-lipped about it," Adam Josephson, east area manager for MnDOT, said of the park service. "They're not giving any indication what it will say. We're anxiously waiting to hear."
A new bridge has been debated for at least 40 years. The lift bridge, built for smaller vehicles in an era when Stillwater was considered a country drive from St. Paul, now carries traffic in excess of its rated capacity and often closes for repairs.
The mounting cost of a new bridge has raised eyebrows even among supporters. The current projection of $668 million is nearly five times the estimate in 1998.
Josephson said MnDOT hopes the new evaluation, once released, will allow his agency to move forward this fall with two preparations -- load testing for bridge piers in the river and relocation of the historic Shoddy Mill that lies in the path of the bridge.
Permits for load testing are also on hold until an objection filed by the mayor of Oak Park Heights, David Beaudet, is resolved.
Josephson said the revised evaluation could lead to a new round of court challenges and government expectations.
Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432