There are as many as 1,170 structurally deficient bridges across Minnesota. You may be one of the estimated 2.4 million Minnesota drivers traveling over these deficient bridges each day. Or maybe it's your child's school bus?
After the tragic collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, I traveled with Minnesota Department of Transportation officials to examine troubled bridges in my district.
While our group was inspecting the Cayuga Street Bridge that spans Interstate 35E, a large chunk of concrete broke free from the bridge and fell only feet from us. Every day, 148,000 cars cross the crumbling Cayuga Street Bridge. That chunk of concrete represents how dire this situation has become.
In my own east-metro congressional district, there are 53 structurally deficient bridges. By volume of traffic, seven of our state's 10 busiest and worst bridges are in Ramsey County, which I represent.
Of course, my district is not unique. My U.S. House colleagues Tim Walz and Chip Cravaack have a combined total of more than 600 substandard bridges in their southern and northeastern Minnesota congressional districts.
Unfortunately for the millions of Minnesotans traveling over these deficient and potentially dangerous bridges every day, there is one bridge replacement project that appears to take both political and funding priority over all other local bridges -- the proposed $700 million replacement for the antiquated Stillwater Lift Bridge that would connect to Houlton, Wis. (pop. 1,660).
MnDOT already has earmarked over $360 million in federal and state funds for the Stillwater replacement, severely limiting the available transportation resources for critical bridge and road safety projects in the rest of Minnesota, according to concerned state legislators.
The proposed four-lane St. Croix megabridge would be located only six miles from the existing eight-lane Interstate 94 crossing. It would serve 18,000 cars and heavy trucks per day.
While this $700 million St. Croix River Crossing may add convenience for Wisconsin commuters going to jobs in the Twin Cities, the project would dump thousands of additional cars onto the Hwy. 36 corridor. Traffic in this corridor is already at capacity and would come to a halt if this misguided megabridge is built.
At present, the megabridge proposal violates the St. Croix River's protected status under federal law. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Michele Bachmann are collaborating in Congress to exempt the St. Croix River from the protections of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
The Klobuchar-Bachmann legislation, which I strongly oppose, specifically dictates the bridge's design, requiring MnDOT to build an exotic and enormous "extradosed"-style bridge.
By mandating the largest possible bridge, their legislation, if passed by Congress, would establish a precedent that essentially guts the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, putting some 200 protected rivers at risk.
A new bridge for Stillwater needs to be built, but it should be fiscally responsible and appropriately scaled, and it should serve local transportation needs without inflicting added congestion on an already stressed Twin Cities transportation system.
Finding the right alternative bridge to save tens or hundreds of millions of tax dollars need not cause delays. We should all remember that it didn't take a decade to replace the collapsed I-35W bridge; it was rebuilt in 339 days.
In Washington, the transportation secretary has offered to convene a high-level working group to reach quick congressional consensus on a St. Croix bridge. There is no doubt that the approval process for a more affordable, river-friendly alternative could be fast-tracked.
Building a single $700 million megabridge is a policy decision that ignores the larger infrastructure crisis facing our state. With scarce federal and state transportation dollars, every extra million dollars spent on this mega-bridge, rather than on a less expensive alternative, is a million dollars lost.
Minnesota needs to build and repair bridges in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Rochester and Ely as well as in Stillwater. In these tough fiscal times, Minnesota taxpayers and motorists just can't afford the financial and safety costs of a megabridge.
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Betty McCollum represents Minnesota's Fourth District in the U.S. House.