A new bridge over the St. Croix River cleared its final hurdle Thursday evening when the Oak Park Heights City Council accepted a controversial state plan to rebuild the Hwy. 36 corridor leading to a new river crossing.
The decision came on a 4-1 vote, with Mayor David Beaudet dissenting.
About 75 people packed the meeting to witness a vote that either would allow the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to move forward with reconstruction of the highway or delay the bridge indefinitely. The first negotiations on the bridge began two decades ago; construction in Oak Park Heights now will begin by May 1.
The overall bridge project, which MnDOT has said could cost as much as $676 million, would include new highways on both sides of the river and numerous environmental and historical protections. The Oak Park Heights portion of the project will involve extensive rebuilding of Hwy. 36 and frontage roads through the city and moving or replacing underground utilities.
Oak Parks Heights, a city of about 4,300 residents, has businesses and residences on both sides of Hwy. 36, and many of its water and sewer pipes are more than 40 years old.
The five City Council members considered three possible resolutions but voted only on a MnDOT plan that will depend on Gov. Mark Dayton's promise to find an additional $1.5 million for the city. That was a selling point for Council Members Les Abrahamson, Mark Swenson, Mary McComber and Mike Runk, addressing their desire to limit costs to city residents.
But the mayor, after several unsuccessful attempts to amend the agreement with MnDOT, delivered an impassioned condemnation of the new bridge.
Beaudet cautioned that the city hadn't discussed key issues such as sound walls, guardrails and emergency services. He said the new bridge wouldn't serve residents of Oak Park Heights but instead would create a regional highway with heavy traffic.
"I personally would have loved a town-hall meeting to discuss all these issues with the residents," he said to several cheers from the audience.
McComber, who is challenging Beaudet in the November election, said that the city had worked hard to avoid costs to residents and that the agreement meant the city could move forward in a partnership with MnDOT.
Several people spoke for and against the proposal. Most of them acknowledged the lengthy history of negotiations.
"The work that you've done, you've come a long way," said Chuck LaRoux, an Oak Park Heights resident and a member of the coalition that supports the bridge.
"The only redeeming quality of the MnDOT proposal is that it gets the traffic out of Stillwater," said Bill Davis, a St. Paul architect.
Earlier this year, Congress voted to permit construction of the bridge, a measure necessary because the St. Croix is one of 203 rivers protected nationwide under the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Once a new bridge opens in 2016 or 2017, the Stillwater Lift Bridge about 2 miles upstream would close to vehicle traffic and become part of a pedestrian loop trail.
The state proposal, initiated on July 2, sought to avoid further delays in the Oak Park Heights negotiations.
A second prepared resolution would have allowed MnDOT to proceed but only if several conditions were met, and a third resolution rejected an agreement.
In a letter Beaudet said he received just hours before Thursday's meeting, Dayton pledged he "would do my utmost" to find money for the city in federal highway funds and state bonding money. The successful resolution, known as "Option C," nullifies a previous municipal consent agreement from 1995. It also recognized state Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo, for securing an additional $1 million in state bonding in the latest legislative session.
Swenson said before the vote that the city had done everything it could do to reach a compromise with MnDOT.
"The people have been affected bigger than everybody understands," he said of Oak Park Heights residents. "We can't nag each other back and forth. It's got to be a cooperative project."
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles