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With action on a new St. Croix River crossing stalled in Congress, Gov. Mark Dayton issued an urgent warning Tuesday that time is running out on federal approval for the long-sought project.
Setting a March 15 deadline, the DFL governor wrote to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Republican House author of a bill granting the necessary environmental clearances, requesting "immediate action."
After speaking with Dayton, Bachmann issued a statement noting that while the project remains her "top priority," Congress is scheduled to be in session only eight days between now and Dayton's deadline.
While Bachmann gave no assurance of a time frame, she said she remains "confident we will face this challenge and move forward in a bipartisan fashion to complete this critical and much-needed project."
Bachmann, as well as several congressional aides, noted that GOP House leaders' attention is now on a major transportation and infrastructure bill. The so-called road bill has sharply divided Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and itself faces a cloudy future.
Republican sources familiar with the bridge legislation see little chance that the road bill will be resolved soon, leaving open the question of what path might be available to Bachmann, who needs to win a controversial exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Meanwhile, under a redistricting plan announced Tuesday by a panel of Minnesota judges, the bridge would pass from a congressional district represented by Bachmann to one represented by DFL incumbent Betty McCollum, who opposes the $690 million project.
"It's doubtful this flawed bill will pass the House on the governor's timeline," McCollum said.
The day's events threw the bridge project into confusion. While the U.S. Senate cleared its version of the bridge bill by unanimous consent Jan. 23, a companion bill in the House has gone nowhere lately.
Despite Bachmann's assurances of bipartisan support in the House, Republican leaders have shown little urgency in bringing the legislation to the House floor. A technical funding change required to win approval in the Senate now requires action by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Bachmann's staff has been pressing Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., to move the bill, but a committee source told the Star Tribune Tuesday that the panel's first priority is the long-term road bill.
Another legislative path would be to fast-track the bill on a special "suspension" calendar in the House. But that is generally reserved for non-controversial legislation, and requires a two-thirds vote to pass. With the bridge facing opposition from environmentalists on the left, and fiscal conservatives on the right, it is by no means clear that Bachmann's bill would survive a two-thirds vote in the House.
Meanwhile, Dayton's letter to Bachmann suggested that if Congress doesn't sign off by March 15, federal funds allocated for the project could be lost and redirected to other transportation projects in the state.
"There will no longer be sufficient funding available to undertake the St. Croix River Crossing Project in the foreseeable future," the governor wrote. That, he said, would "return to the beginning of the process. ... Such a restart would most likely consign any new bridge to another decade of debate, with no assurance of a better outcome at the end."
Dayton's new deadline, however, is not his first. Originally Minnesota Department of Transportation officials had set a Sept. 30 deadline, which was then extended to Nov. 15.
"Every day that we delay causes the project to incur more risk of not being able to meet its schedule and be started in the required time," said MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. "This could cause us to lose funding."
Gutknecht said transportation officials have yet to determine where they might redirect bridge funding.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who shepherded the bridge legislation through the Senate, offered to help Bachmann and her House colleagues in Minnesota and Wisconsin who have pushed in vain to win congressional approval. But it's unclear how Klobuchar could help in the House debate.
Meanwhile, the prospect of freeing bridge funds for other projects would be welcomed by bridge critics.
"Dayton is making the point we have made for many months now, that there are other pressing transportation needs in the state," said State Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis, lead DFLer on the House Transportation and Finance committee. "I think this 'all or nothing,' build-this-megabridge approach, is not working."
Hornstein said a compromise for a St. Croix River bridge is possible, but he said he's drafting legislation to share the current bridge money with other projects.
Backers of the project, however, are planning to intensify their lobbying efforts.
"We're so close we're not going to back down now," said Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki, who's also co-chairman of the pro-bridge lobbying group Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing. "We're all-hands-on-deck and we're committed to throwing all our resources that we can at this to meet that deadline."
The Stillwater City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday evening to spend $15,000 for two lobbyists to promote a new bridge over the next few weeks.
The contract would extend until March 20, when the council could consider a renewal. Council Member Micky Cook questioned how the money would be spent and cast the single dissenting vote. The majority of the council argued that the city needed the lobbying help given the March 15 deadline. Council Member Doug Menikheim said most residents want a new bridge.
"I represent the city; I don't represent the river," Menikheim said. "We all have a great deal to lose if we don't back the lobbyists."
Half the money -- $7,500 -- will go to Wilhelmi Government Affairs for lobbying at the state level. The other half will go to Riverwood Group of River Falls, Wis., to lobby federal officials.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune's Washington Bureau. Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles