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— by Ted Ted
House Passes Bill To Aid Proposed $633M St. Croix River Bridge
 By Tom Ichniowski
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Related Links:
Minnesota-Wisconsin Link Faces Another Lawsuit (ENR June 2007)

A controversial proposed bridge over the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota has cleared a big hurdle: Congress has approved a bill exempting the project from the requirements of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The statute bars federally funded projects that would harm such rivers' scenic qualities.

The Senate approved the measure in January. House passage, which came on March 1 on a strong 339-80 vote, is the final congressional action on the measure. The bill now goes to the White House.

The Obama administration has not issued a formal position statement on the bill, but one of the measure’s supporters, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood supports the project.

The project’s estimated cost is $633.4 million, including $410.8 million for construction and $55 million for engineering, according to the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation. MnDOT says the project’s potential cost ranges from $574 million to $690 million.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who opposed the bill, said that, if enacted, it would call for the first-ever waiver of the 1968 rivers statute, which bars federal agencies from funding water-resources projects that would have "a direct and adverse effect" on the "values" of rivers designated as wild or scenic.

The project would include a 4,950-ft-long, four-lane bridge, measured from the Minnesota-side abutment to the Wisconsin abutment. It would be an extradosed bridge, with several towers, each rising about 70 ft from the bridge deck. [more bid opportunities]

It would replace the two-lane Stillwater Lift Bridge, which was built in 1931 and is about a mile north of the proposed site for the planned new structure.

Congressional lawmakers wanted to act quickly because, in a Feb. 21 letter to federal, state and local officials, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) said the legislation had to be approved and enacted by March 15 or funds set aside for the project would have to be reallocated to other projects in the state.

The bill’s supporters include Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) as well as the two states’ four U.S. senators.

But the plan also has its critics, including Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who said it would require building a “megabridge” to link Oak Park Heights, Minn., and Houlton, Wis., two small municipalities with a combined population of about 5,100.

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McCollum said she supported a replacement for the 81-year-old Stillwater bridge but one that was “more affordable and appropriately scaled.”

The project has a long, bumpy history. In 1995, federal and state officials proposed a replacement for the Stillwater bridge. However, in 1996, the National Park Service determined the project would harm the St. Croix River’s scenic qualities.

In 2005, state and federal officials came up with a revised proposal: a bridge to be located south of the site proposed a decade earlier.

The park service said the revised project would have a negative impact on the river, but it said that impact could be offset through the environmental mitigation measures laid out in a 2006 Federal Highway Administration-National Park Service memorandum.

But the Sierra Club successfully challenged the new plan in federal district court. After the 2010 court ruling on that case, the park service did yet another study. This time it said the plan would have a direct, negative effect on the St. Croix and added that no mitigation could be effective.

Advocates of the project then turned to allies in Congress for a legislative remedy.

The just-passed bill grants the plan an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act but also requires the project include the 2006 mitigation program.


St. Croix River;
 White House;
 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act;
 National Park Service;
 Gov. Mark Dayton;
 Gov. Scott Walker;
 Stillwater Lift Bridge