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Meeting tries to break logjam over Stillwater bridge
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The Stillwater lift bridge spans 1,050 feet across the St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin. It was built in 1931, and is coming to the end of its useful life. But plans to build a replacement bridge have been stuck for years. (MPR file photo)
Representatives from 28 groups meet Tuesday at Stillwater City Hall to try agree on a plan for a new bridge across the St. Croix River. They've been meeting for two years to try settle differences over a proposed four-lane span across the federally-protected waterway, that would replace the aging Stillwater lift bridge. While some participants say an agreement is close, at least two groups say they still oppose a new bridge.

Stillwater, Minn. — Opponents say a new four-lane bridge will open western Wisconsin to sprawl the region is not prepared to handle.

However, banker John Soderberg says a new bridge will help manage the growth. Soderberg is president of First National Bank of New Richmond. The community of 7,500 is 40 miles east of the Twin Cities in Wisconsin's St. Croix County, the state's fastest-growing region -- due in part to relatively low land costs and its scenic beauty.

"Some people say it's out of control. Well, growth is inevitable and managing growth becomes the real issue," says Soderberg. "The metropolitan area of the Twin Cities is approaching three million, and it's a natural wave that's occuring. And we want to manage that growth properly."

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, one of the 28 groups involved in the bridge talks, disagrees with the latest bridge proposal. Its objection is not to the design, but rather to the impact the bridge will have.

The MCEA's Steve Thorne, a former deputy commissioner in the Minnesota DNR, will recommend his group consider legal action to try block the project. Thorne says Wisconsin towns and counties don't have the money to deal with the habitat loss and other environmental problems caused by the sprawl.

"For example, there's a really good proposal for a regional water study, that would provide the information that's necessary to plan for ... water quality degradation, and problems with treatment of floodwater and storm water. But that's not funded, and it's not proposed to be funded as part of this," Thorne says.

A Sierra Club representative to the bridge talks says his group also opposes the new plan, and will consider legal action to block the project.

Some people say it's out of control. Well, growth is inevitable, and managing growth becomes the real issue.
- John Soderberg, First National Bank of New Richmond, Wis.

Another group with doubts is the city of Oak Park Heights. The approach to the proposed span would go through the town of 5,000 people just south of Stillwater. Residents are worried about the impact on the town's budget.

City Council member Mary McComber says Oak Park Heights doesn't have the projected $5 million it might cost to move city water and sewer lines, to make way for the road leading to the bridge.

"Funding has to be found somewhere, whether it's from the federal government or the state government. Because the town just can't afford that kind of money," McComber says.

McComber says a provision in the new federal transportation bill contains money to cover the costs, but Congress has not acted on the measure.

Oak Park Heights has already paid a price. Ten years ago, the government bought out owners of more than 60 homes on the city's property tax rolls to make way for the bridge. The homes were destroyed, but the land sits unused as discussions about bridge construction continue.

A new four-lane bridge just south of Stillwater would relieve congestion that fills downtown every day, as commuters line up to cross the old lift bridge. The lift bridge would remain open to pedestrians and bicyclists.

At one time, federal officials charged with protecting the St. Croix's wild and scenic river status wanted the old bridge out of the river.

Some Stillwater residents want to keep the old structure. Three years ago the Bush administration said it wanted seven controversial transportation projects, including the St. Croix bridge issue, settled. Since then, the Interior Department has relented on some of its environmental concerns.

Stillwater Mayor Jay Kimble says even if a new bridge proposal goes forward, construction wouldn't begin for at least two years.

"The earliest we'd see construction is 2007 with completion around 2011," says Kimble. "So it's still five or six years away before the problems of the traffic and the easy movement of regional traffic will be solved."

The l995 price tag for a new bridge near Stillwater over the St. Croix was $120 million. The new price tag, including money for some additional farm land acquisition in Wisconsin, bigger roads leading to the bridge and some environmental mitigation costs, comes in at $350 million.

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