A St. Croix River bridge proposal won't shrink in size despite a federal judge's criticism last month that a "massive" bridge south of Stillwater would have a "dramatic and disruptive" influence on the river's scenery.
The National Park Service (NPS) won't appeal Judge Michael Davis' ruling but instead will better explain to the court why the agency supports the most recent proposal after opposing a similar one in 1996, said Chris Stein, superintendent of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
The March 11 ruling blocked the proposed $668 million bridge on grounds it violates the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The NPS can't authorize the current four-lane bridge proposal or otherwise assist in construction unless it issues a new "Section 7 evaluation" that addresses the court's concerns, Davis wrote.
A Sierra Club lawsuit prompted the ruling. Stein said he expects the Sierra Club will sue again once the NPS issues a new evaluation, but club spokesman Jim Rickard declined to say whether that might happen.
"We're certainly hoping they're going to re-evaluate their position," said Rickard, who said his group doesn't oppose a bridge over the St. Croix but wants a smaller bridge that would be less intrusive to the federally protected river.
The latest proposal was drafted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which decided after the court ruling that "the bridge plan will stand," spokeswoman Mary McFarland Brooks said.
The transportation agency signed a $3.8 million contract with a drilling company to conduct load testing in the St. Croix riverbed in a preliminary phase of construction, she said. That activity is on hold, however, until an April 20 hearing over a challenge to the permitting process.
If legal hurdles are cleared and money becomes available, bridge construction would begin in 2013 at a cost six times what was estimated a decade ago.
Last month, after criticizing "activist judges," U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., introduced a bill in Congress that would nullify the court ruling and allow construction. Bachmann never proposed that the river be excluded from federal protection, spokeswoman Rachel Horn said, but mentioned that as one of several approaches to getting the bridge built.
Passage of Bachmann's bill would set "an extremely dangerous precedent for the nation," Rickard said, because such a law could open protected land everywhere to roads and bridges. "That kind of move is overreacting and also would be very destructive to the St. Croix Valley and would affect a lot of people."
Bachmann's attempts to pass the bill might be futile because she'll have a tough time persuading anyone in Congress to go along with such a narrow point of law, said Timothy Johnson, co-director of the Institute of Law and Politics at the University of Minnesota.
Stein said the NPS hoped to complete a new evaluation by July 1. While the Lower St. Croix where the bridge would be built is a state-managed zone, the NPS oversees its management plans under federal law.
Davis wrote in his ruling that failure by the NPS to acknowledge its previous opposition to a St. Croix bridge, "let alone explain why, in its opinion, a change is justified, is the hallmark of an arbitrary and capricious decision." Davis is chief judge of U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
Stein and his planning and compliance specialist, Jill Medland, said the NPS will substantiate why it changed positions from opposing a bridge project in 1996 to supporting one in 2005. The major difference, they said, is the mitigation work that would be done to soften the new bridge's presence. Prominent among those measures are wetlands replacement, erosion control, bluff restoration and conversion of the 1931 Stillwater Lift Bridge to a pedestrian and bicycle trail.
Judge derided mitigation plan
Davis was critical of the mitigation plans, noting in his ruling that the size of the bridge hasn't diminished.
"The National Park Service fails to explain how combining a group of apparently ineffective measures, all of which relate to shoreline actions, can create an effective mitigation package, when, in 1996, it concluded that no available mitigation measures could significantly reduce the negative visual impact of a similar bridge," he wrote.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., supports a new bridge. But he thinks the Bachmann bill will take too long to wind through House committees.
"We're trying to figure out what the quickest route is to overcome this latest obstacle," he said. "That old lift bridge is a hazard; it's an emergency concern."
Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432