Sen. Al Franken listened Saturday to Stillwater officials seeking his support for a new bridge over the St. Croix River, strolled across the 80-year-old lift bridge that it would replace and promised to weigh the character of the scenic river and complaints about traffic in reaching a decision.
"I haven't made any decision," Franken said after a meeting with local officials, who made a pitch for a bridge south of downtown Stillwater.
Some environmental groups oppose the four-lane project, which along with related construction could cost up to $690 million, and prefer one closer to the existing lift bridge.
"There are certainly very strong arguments on both sides," Franken said, noting the proposal's expense.
While saying environmental groups have raised "very legitimate concerns," he also asked: "Are the alternatives that are suggested by those groups less environmentally damaging" than the project backed by the city?
The project was proposed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, but congressional support is needed before it can begin. Minnesota's elected officials are divided on it. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann and Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar support the proposal. Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum and former Vice President Walter Mondale oppose it.
Franken, a Democrat, said he has spoken with Mondale and MnDOT officials but has yet to talk to Dayton or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He expressed concern that Walker's office said Wisconsin doesn't have the money to help finance it: "We don't want to build half a bridge. ... We want to make sure that with a project with this size and expense that we have a partner that actually has the money. We have other transportation needs in the state."
Franken met briefly with Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki and Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel before heading to the lift bridge with them for a tour guided by state bridge engineer Nancy Daubenberger.
The narrow, two-lane structure was built in 1931. Daubenberger pointed out corroded metal girders but assured Franken: "The bridge is safe."
Traffic jams to and from it are legendary, and as long lines of traffic crossed it Saturday, one driver yelled toward Franken, "Build the bridge."
Harycki showed Franken where an alternative proposal favored by some environmental groups would be built not far from the lift bridge in downtown Stillwater. Local officials say the alternative would detract from the attractiveness of the historic downtown district.
"We have been in communication with Senator Franken's staff and understand that he is considering all sides of the issue," said Margaret Levin, state director of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504