One of our New Year's hopes is that Congress will approve the St. Croix River Crossing bridge, a proposed four-lane project spanning from Minnesota to Wisconsin just south of Stillwater.
After 80 years, the current two-lane Stillwater Lift Bridge is rapidly deteriorating. It can't be torn down, however, because it's a protected historic landmark. At the same time, growth along the Wisconsin and Minnesota border is creating more traffic.
The proposed bridge was selected by a range of groups that spent several years weighing various options. The plan enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S. House and Senate from members of the Minnesota and Wisconsin delegations, as well as from both states' governors.
Costs for the project are to be shared by Wisconsin and Minnesota. The estimated price tag is $292 million, with an additional $340 million for a range of other expenditures, such as preserving historical landmarks.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation says it has already set aside $160 million in federal funding and $203 million in trunk highway bonding for the effort.
Unfortunately, U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, both Democrats, oppose the proposed project and are attempting to undermine it with legislation that would hamstring the budget.
They're also echoing much of the rhetoric of a group pushing an alternative three-lane bridge that would cut diagonally across the river, from close to where the current lift bridge stands on the Wisconsin side to just south of downtown Stillwater. The group claims that its bridge would cost millions less and be better suited to the area.
Not true, according to MnDOT, which has issued repeated assessments of the group's plan and did so again last month. Not only does the group underestimate costs, its project would also cause greater harm to the environment.
"The impacts are greater on historical properties, bluff areas, floodplains, wetlands, commercial properties and endangered mussel habitat," MnDOT stated in the latest report.
In our view, the diagonal bridge would create a visual eyesore across a huge swath of the landscape -- whereas the preferred four-lane project is a direct blufftop-to-blufftop route.
Enough is enough. McCollum and Ellison should stop throwing up roadblocks on a project that isn't even in their districts. If they succeed in killing the St. Croix River Crossing project, the process for a selecting a new bridge must start all over again, causing years of delay that can only drive up costs.
The four-lane bridge has been thoroughly vetted over the course of three decades. This is the plan that citizens and other stakeholders chose to best meet the traffic needs of the 21st century while causing the least environmental harm.
An act of Congress is needed to build the bridge because the river is protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill have passed through their respective committees. The bills await a full vote from Congress.
The House version is being ushered ahead by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican, while Democrat Amy Klobuchar is leading the charge in the Senate.
"The Minnesota Department of Transportation has now shown several times that other designs are unworkable," Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said in response to questions from an editorial writer. "It's time to get this bridge built."
He's right. And time is of the essence.
Bachmann and her House colleagues sent a letter this week to the Natural Resources Committee chairman asking that full congressional action be taken quickly, so that "state funding is not reallocated to other projects."
Let's hope Congress heeds the message.
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