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Mediation aims to resolve deadlock over Stillwater bridge
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The roots of the monthly Stillwater bridge mediation meetings go back to the deadlock created seven years ago. That's when a federal agency declined to issue a permit for a new bridge. (MPR file photo)
The 30-year-old Stillwater bridge controversy is drawing the attention of Congress and the Bush administration. They want the environmental stalemate solved. Traffic tie-ups at the old, two-lane bridge are growing. One reason is the explosive growth in Wisconsin's St. Croix County. The Sierra Club says the congestion can be remedied in part by funneling more Wisconsin drivers to the nearby I-94 bridge. Supporters of a new Stillwater bridge say the Sierra Club plan doesn't deal with population growth in western Wisconsin. Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Olson reports.

Stillwater, Minn. — The Sierra Club proposal will be discussed this week. Every month representatives from 35 groups with an interest in the Stillwater bridge issue meet with a mediator. The Sierra Club representative, Matt Hollinshead, says their proposal includes widening Wisconsin roads that feed the Interstate 94 bridge five miles south of the Stillwater bridge.

"The 94 bridge has just been expanded twice in the last decade, or 15 years, and it's a full-fledged -- as far as I can see -- mostly congestion-free freeway bridge," Hollinshead says.

By contrast, traffic tie ups at the two-lane Stillwater lift bridge are legendary.

John Soderberg says the commuters, many heading to Twin Cities-area jobs, have a right to get there in a timely way. The solution, he says, is a new, four-lane freeway-style bridge. Cost estimates start at $135 million dollars.

Environmentalists say construction will damage the scenic bluffs at the river's edge. Building the bridge pillars, they say, will harm the water quality of one of the country's cleanest rivers.

Soderberg is a western Wisconsin banker who heads a group of new bridge supporters. He all but dismisses the Sierra Club proposal.

"What's not in there is the solution moving this traffic from St. Croix County across the river and into Washington County and through Stillwater and solving those tie ups that take sometimes 25 minutes," according to Soderberg.

Soderberg says the tie-ups are life threatening when they delay emergency vehicles. Matt Hollinshead says the Sierra Club proposal gives emergency vehicles pre-emption. The traffic management jargon means police, fire and rescue personnel control traffic lights to give their vehicles priority.

"Not just ambulances and emergency vehicles, but shuttle buses to the Anderson plant would be eligible for those bypass lanes and those meters," he says.

The nearby Bayport-based Anderson Window Company is a destination for hundreds of Wisconsin commuters who use the Stillwater bridge.

The roots of the monthly Stillwater bridge mediation meetings go back to the deadlock created seven years ago. That's when a federal agency declined to issue a permit for a new bridge. The federal decision was based in part on the St. Croix's federal wild and scenic rivers status. State agencies and others sued to have the bridge building permit issued. A federal judge ruled against them.

Congress has entered the fray. Members who favor a new bridge propose changing federal law to free a new Stillwater bridge from restrictions in the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Wisconsin banker John Soderberg says his group is committed to reaching consensus through the monthly mediation sessions.

"The purpose of these is to get everyone's opinions and everyone's facts and figures as they see them out on the table so that we can get this thing hashed out and facilitate a solution to this problem," he says.

Stillwater is caught in the middle.

Mayor Jay Kimble, a supporter of a new bridge, says the congestion discourages people from shopping downtown. He says the fumes created by the traffic tie ups are unhealthy. "When cars are at idle like this they are at their absolute worst efficiency mode and produce the most emissions," Kimble says.

The Stillwater bridge mediation talks are expected to continue well into next year. They're part of an effort by the Bush administration to speed resolution of the longstanding environmental dispute. A separate issue is the question of keeping or demolishing the old historic lift bridge if a new span is built.

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