Stillwater city officials, angry over continuing delays in building a new span across the St. Croix River, want legislative approval to permanently close the crowded 80-year-old lift bridge.
"We have a state highway that's running through our streets, and it's costing us money," Mayor Ken Harycki said, referring to thousands of Wisconsin vehicles streaming through Stillwater's neighborhoods to cross the bridge. "We would be looking for a bill basically to declare the bridge unsafe and close it."
City Council Member Doug Menikheim was even more outspoken on Thursday.
"All they [commuters] use our city for is a highway," he said. "They do nothing but drive through. We feel this is the single most profound issue that keeps us from the city that we would like to have."
The City Council voted 5 to 0 on Tuesday night to approve a motion seeking legislative intervention. Just which legislator might sponsor a bill that would close the lift bridge -- diverting traffic to other St. Croix bridges -- hasn't been decided.
The city can't close the state-managed bridge, and just how the Legislature might do so remains unclear.
"I don't blame Stillwater," said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo. She said the bridge is unsafe and too old to accommodate the heavy traffic that uses it. The city's appeal to the Legislature will help draw public attention back to the need for a new bridge, she said.
Another proponent of a new bridge, Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel, said the Stillwater decision reflects mounting frustration over "untold environmental damage" as thousands of cars idle on city streets as drivers wait to cross the existing bridge.
"It reflects desperation of a city government that's trying to protect the safety and welfare of their community," he said. "The symbolism has a lot of merit behind it."
Adam Josephson, east metro manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the bridge is an important regional connection. "We inspect it and monitor it very closely, and it's safe," he said.
The bridge will close for a $2 million repair project in the fall of 2012. Only the state engineer could close the bridge for safety reasons, and that's unlikely to happen, Josephson said.
Harycki and Menikheim said almost all of the reaction to the City Council's decision has been positive.
"People were saying it's about time we got our city back," Menikheim said.
Even if the Legislature voted to close the lift bridge, building a new bridge is another matter. It now appears that only Congress could approve construction of a new bridge across the St. Croix, which is protected by federal law.
Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342