Different times call for a different St. Croix bridge

  • Article by: ETHAN FAWLEY
  • Updated: August 11, 2011 - 10:15 PM

Here's a situation in which we can certainly do more with less.

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The Stillwater Lift Bridge, seen from Stillwater, which connects Minnesota to Wisconsin by spanning the St. Croix River.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Government reform. Doing more with less. The new normal.

With our state government facing structural deficits and increasing demands, government restructuring is a hot topic. And rightly so.

Transportation, which has too long been left out of reform discussions in Minnesota, is now starting to see creative shifts initiated by the state Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Council.

But most of these ideas have yet to shift from plan to project. That's a shame, because there's a lot of opportunity (and need) for creative and fundamental changes in how we do transportation projects -- and producing better outcomes for less money.

No project epitomizes the need for this shift more than the $633 million St. Croix River Crossing proposal near Stillwater.

This bridge proposal, which has been called a boondoggle by some and a savior by others, is expensive regardless of perspective: It's about $400 million more expensive than the Interstate 35W bridge replacement.

That's a large price tag, especially since it will carry 100,000 fewer cars a day. The reality is that every dollar spent on this bridge is a dollar that can't be spent on needed bridge and road repairs elsewhere in Minnesota.

And therein lies the ongoing problem: MnDOT estimates the state highway system will be short about $50 billion over the next 30 years, a deficit that will only grow larger if we continue to follow an outdated model for highway projects.

The main argument for this big bridge is that something needs to be done, and this is the solution that was agreed on by most stakeholders in a process that began in 2003 and ended in 2006.

But so much has changed in the last half decade -- a fact that must impact the project like it has impacted nearly every government, business and household budget.

In 2003, gas was less than $1.50 a gallon in Minnesota, Twin Cities homebuilders were in the midst of a real estate boom that seemed to be waiting for a bridge to spread across Stillwater to Wisconsin, and the Great Recession was still just a doomsday worry.

But there is little to suggest that current market realities will lead to the growth that planners anticipated.

A recently unveiled "sensible" Stillwater bridge proposal estimated at $283 million is a step in the right direction and might be the best option. But could there be a better one?

Before politics took hold, some of the creative thinkers at MnDOT had started work toward a $90 million solution that could be done quickly.

The idea was to rehab the existing bridge while improving the lift schedule (most congestion is caused when the current lift bridge goes up) and investing in other creative ideas to improve traffic flow and the quality of downtown Stillwater.

This could include transit options (there are very few now), more frequent traffic patrols, improved carpool options and other programs.

The $90 million would include money to improve the accessibility and attractiveness of businesses in downtown Stillwater through streetscaping, parking or other improvements.

And it would also include strategic road and highway improvements on nearby corridors to help improve traffic flow.

All of this could be done for even less than the "sensible" bridge proposal and might provide the best solution given rising gas prices, depressed housing markets and government debt.

Regardless of the final solution, the bridge decision cannot be made based on what the world was like in 2003. MnDOT should acknowledge today's realities and think creatively about doing more with less money and a shorter timeline.

That doesn't require a whole new stakeholder process, but it will require admitting that the "new normal" affects transportation as well.

Ethan Fawley is transportation policy director of Fresh Energy, an nonprofit organization based in St. Paul.

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