The new St. Croix River bridge, once seen mainly as a remedy for downtown Stillwater’s vehicle backups, is shaking up the regional transportation picture as drivers abandon old routes and find new ones.
In four short months, the bridge’s presence has shifted heavier traffic to some roads but eased it on others, as drivers continue route experiments that may continue well into 2018. Washington County plans a $500,000 traffic study next year that several cities are expected to join.
“What we have here is a major shift with a new crossing,” said county engineer Wayne Sandberg. “This might be dynamic for awhile while drivers try different routes, raising the question, ‘How does this play out in a larger scale across the region?’ ”
Many merchants in downtown Stillwater say the new bridge has accomplished exactly what was intended: ending the noisy bumper-to-bumper parade of vehicles waiting to cross the old Lift Bridge that linked with Wisconsin. The Lift Bridge is no longer open to vehicle traffic and will be used as a pedestrian and bicycle crossing.
“Everything I hoped for has happened,” said Chris Kohtz, owner of the Wedge and Wheel, a cheese and wine shop a block from the Lift Bridge. “I took this location on the promise of what it could be when the bridge closed. The traffic jam was literally strangling the life out of downtown.”
Another business owner, Meg Brownson of Alfresco Casual Living, said that before the new bridge opened, shoppers disappeared in the afternoons as commuters crowded Main Street.
“Nobody would dare come down that time of day before,” she said.
Brownson said that while her sales are about the same — “definitely not worse” — downtown is undergoing a rebirth of sorts with two new hotels under construction and new shops opening.
“The difference is, it’s really calm downtown and I don’t have people complaining about the traffic,” she said.
Farther down Main Street, at River Market Community Co-op, manager Mead Stone said that about a fifth or more of his customers are from Wisconsin and that they’re still coming despite the longer route across the new bridge south of downtown.
“Sales are down slightly, which I attribute more to increased competition than anything else,” Stone said, referring to new grocery stores and others that stock organic foods, River Market’s staple.
Twice since early August, when the new bridge opened and the old one closed, the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce has surveyed its members to find out if business was better or worse.
Results from the latest survey, taken early in November, show most respondents reported an upswing in business. Some saw no change, and a few merchants said their sales declined. Responses were anonymous and didn’t specify locations in the broader market area the chamber represents, which includes the Hwy. 36 corridor.
“I was hopeful that it was going to be a positive change, but so far our numbers have been the lowest in the last five years,” one business owner wrote.
Traffic patterns vary on Hwy. 36, which leads to the new bridge. In August, after the bridge opened, the average daily traffic count there surged to 33,200; in October it fell to 31,600.
Traffic declined more on the new bridge, from 28,700 east-west daily crossings in August to 25,200 in October, according to a Wisconsin Department of Transportation count taken on the east end of the bridge. The bridge was built to accommodate 71,500 vehicles a day.
Declining numbers, mostly on weekends, might be attributed to fewer recreational trips and the novelty of the bridge wearing off, said Brian Kary, MnDOT’s traffic operations director.
While commuter traffic in downtown Stillwater apparently has lessened, actual numbers won’t be known until sometime next year when MnDOT plans a traffic count.
The $500,000 Washington County study possibly will measure traffic patterns next spring and again in the fall, Sandberg said.
“It’s important to note this is the start of a longer process,” he said, because of the new bridge’s unpredictable influences on regional transportation.
Brownson said it’s too early to draw conclusions.
“It’s about changing people’s habits,” she said. “It will take a longer snapshot.”