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Stillwater Bridge plan to have day in court

After months of waiting, the Sierra Club's lawsuit aimed at stopping the construction of a new St. Croix River crossing at Stillwater is almost here.

Lawyers for both sides of the case will gather in Minneapolis federal court Monday, Sept. 14, for arguments. The judge in the case has allotted three hours for attorneys to present their cases.

According to Jim Rickard, spokesperson with the Sierra Club's St. Croix Valley Interstate Group, which is leading the lawsuit effort, a team of about four or five attorneys developed the case against the new bridge as it's currently designed.

Rickard said the environmental organization is attempting to compel the National Park Service to reconsider its backing for the new span.

"The design today is essentially the same design that was on the table years ago and the National Park Service rejected it," Rickard said.

He said the federal department, which designated the St. Croix River as a wild and scenic river in l976 to protect it from development pressure, should be more concerned about the potential negative impact a major new bridge would have on the waterway.

A new bridge will need to be constructed at some point, he said, but a less intrusive project would suit the needs of commuters and travelers.

"The Sierra Club is not against a new bridge," Rickard said. "We're supportive of a new replacement bridge being put in place of the old one."

Rickard called the current bridge proposal that constructs a major span between Minnesota and Wisconsin bluffs "excessive."

The bridge plan, he claimed, only helps to serve developers who hope to cash in on new home building that may occur in Wisconsin once the river crossing is completed.

"Are we willing to sacrifice a precious natural resource for the sake of development?" he asked. "This is our Yellowstone National Park. We need to preserve this."

More and more taxpayers, and taxpayer organizations, also oppose the bridge idea due to the expected high cost of the project, Rickard said.

"We've gotten a lot of accolades from people who are supportive of our work," he said. "There are concerns from an economic perspective as well. That's another critical aspect of this."

John Soderberg, New Richmond, who has been a proponent of a new bridge for years, said those on the other side of the lawsuit feel "confident" that a positive result is forthcoming.

"We're much better prepared this time," he said, alluding to a previous Sierra Club lawsuit in l996 that stopped the project in its tracks.

Soderberg, who was a representative on the Stakeholders Group that met for three years to negotiate a compromise plan for the river crossing, said all of the "issues" of concern to the National Park Service and other groups were addressed through the process.

"We've done just about everything we could as a stakeholders group," he said.

Now it's just a waiting game, he said.

"Who knows what will happen," he said. "Depending on what the judgment of the court is, we'll have a Plan B. What is Plan B? To tell you the truth, I don't know. But we're going to continue to go after a bridge, one way or another."

Soderberg said he disagrees with recent estimates that the bridge will cost more than $600 million, noting that a fair amount of work on the project plans has already been completed and paid for.

Soderberg said he's still hopeful that the announced bridge construction start will remain 2013, if not sooner.

The proposed crossing, if constructed, would replace the current lift bridge in downtown Stillwater.

Under current plans, the historic lift bridge would remain open to pedestrians traffic and bicyclists.

The bridge would be built a mile south of downtown Stillwater, near the intersection of Highway 36 and Highway 95 in Oak Park Heights.