WASHINGTON - With a deadline looming to build a new bridge across the St. Croix River, several government leaders and business owners made a big push in Washington on Wednesday to close the deal on the $690 million project.

The 19-member delegation, including eight elected officials traveling at public expense, held private meetings with nine Minnesota and Wisconsin congressional offices to seek an exemption to the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to allow construction.

"We're closer than ever, and we want to get the message out that the time to act is now," said Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki, who also co-chairs the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing.

A Sept. 30 deadline that Gov. Mark Dayton set for Congress to pass legislation has been moved to Nov. 15, transportation sources said this week. Dayton, who supports the bridge project, said Minnesota would lose federal funding if Congress didn't move quickly.

Opponents said Wednesday's trip was the latest in a series of closed-door meetings and taxpayer-funded advocacies for a project not all Minnesota taxpayers support.

"I do think this large bridge is absolutely the wrong direction," said Dana Jackson, a Stillwater resident. "That's why I get so upset that they're spending public money and assuming they speak for all of us."

Although a new bridge would be built in adjoining Oak Park Heights, Harycki has said that Stillwater has a vested interest in closing the 80-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge to traffic.

Among the officials traveling at public expense were Harycki and Jim Roush, a Stillwater City Council member, who paid $318 each for plane fare. Gary Kriesel, who chairs the county board, spent $693 for a flight and hotel costs. Costs for Ted Schoenecker, the county's transportation planning engineer, were the same.

'Decades of more delay'

Harycki has made two previous trips to Washington to lobby for the bridge at public expense. City records show he was refunded $714.05 for a May trip and $915.75 in August.

On Wednesday, Harycki said such costs are minuscule compared with the payoff of a new bridge. "People are sitting there criticizing us for spending $300 on a plane ticket to come out," he said. "You have to look at it, what's the cost of not spending the money? It's decades of more delay."

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have sponsored bills to allow the project. Support also comes from Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Chip Cravaack, both of Minnesota, as well as both Wisconsin's senators and two House members.

"It's clear this is bringing everyone together on a two-state basis and also a bipartisan basis," Klobuchar said Wednesday.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., the most vocal voice opposing the bills in Congress, said she too met with the pro-bridge delegation Wednesday. "I told them that Stillwater does deserve to have a bridge being built, but we need to do it balancing the other needs of the east metro," she said.

The next step for both the House and Senate bills is a committee markup that would happen, at the earliest, in October. Even if the bills pass committee, they must travel a long road in a Congress where little has been done this year.

Some trade union representatives in the delegation made a pitch for jobs. "We could put hundreds of Minnesota construction workers back to work on this project quickly," said Kyle Makarios, political director of the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.

A call for openness

But in Oak Park Heights, Mayor David Beaudet said his city of about 4,200 residents can't afford to pay $12 million or more to relocate underground utilities as part of the reconstruction of Hwy. 36. No bridge will be built unless Oak Park Heights agrees to it, and the city hasn't taken a position, he said.

Beaudet, who opposes the proposal, said the coalition members should be open about what they're doing. "Talk is a good game for them when they go behind their closed doors," he said. A recent state auditor's review said the Stillwater City Council had illegally donated $80,000 to the coalition without a contract. That money has been returned.

Harycki defended private meetings with lawmakers. "With this and all the strategy that goes into it, we don't want to publish a roadmap of what our strategy is," he said. "Likewise, the Sierra Club isn't sharing their information with us either."

The Sierra Club in Minnesota hasn't gone to Washington to lobby congressional representatives, said Margaret Levin, the group's state director. "We don't have the resources or taxpayer dollars to send our Minnesota leaders to D.C. for this purpose," she said.

Federal records show the national Sierra Club has lobbied against the bridge, as have American Rivers and the National Parks Conservation Association.

Jeremy Herb • 202-422-2180 Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles