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St. Croix River bridge battle far from over?

Alex Herrgott (foreground), director of transportation and infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin's Seventh District) answer questions from the crowd during last Thursday's transportation briefing in New Richmond.

Even though preliminary work has begun on the new St. Croix River bridge near Stillwater, Minn., backers of the proposed project warn the fight for its eventual construction isn't done.

The New Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a national transportation briefing Thursday, Aug. 16, at Ready Randy's south of town.

Featured speakers at the event were U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin's Seventh District) and Alex Herrgott, director of transportation and infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Larry Dowell, executive director of the St. Croix River Coalition, kicked off the meeting by congratulating those who have helped lead the push for a new bridge, which will eventually replace the current 80-year-old structure that currently spans the river.

But while bridge supporters have been buoyed by positive news over the past few months, Dowell said now is not the time to be complacent. Even though Congress overwhelming approved an exemption to the Wild & Scenic Riverway Act that will allow a new bridge to be built, and President Barack Obama signed that legislation, Dowell said it's still not a sure thing.

"A lot of folks think this project is done," he told the crowd. "It's not done."

Until the design and engineering is actually underway, and the construction contract is awarded later this fall, nothing is certain, he said.

"Up until that time, our opponents can stop the project," Dowell said.

As permits are sought, he noted, those opposed to the bridge may try to slow the approval process by flooding regulatory agencies with negative comments and stall tactics.

He said those in favor of a new bridge shouldn't stay silent if and when that happens.

Herrgott said the long road to a new bridge at Houlton and Stillwater isn't a unique story. Many bridge projects have been gridlocked for years as environmental groups work to stall progress.

But the recent Interstate 35 bridge, which was rebuilt in just 437 days, proves there is a better way to deal with needed transportation projects, Herrgott said.

That's why the recently approved "Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century" (MAP-21) federal legislation is such good news, Herrgott said.

The bill, which was signed July 6 by President Obama, should help to streamline future projects that address the nation's crumbling infrastructure, he said. The bill establishes strict deadlines for agencies that must approve bridges and other transportation projects.

"We took a lesson from I-35," Herrgott said.

Duffy talked about the bi-partisan effort that helped push the bridge forward in Congress. He said environmental interests threatened that the bridge vote would negatively impact elected officials' "ratings" if they chose to vote in favor of the exemption.

To counter that pressure, union interests who were excited about the jobs that would be created as a result of the bridge project also designated the measure as a "key vote" that would impact each congressman's union and jobs rating.

"They had to choose between jobs and the environment," Duffy said.

Duffy said he was excited about the effort put forth by Democrats and Republicans on the bridge, noting that when political wrangling is set aside good things can be accomplished in Washington, D.C.

Duffy spent a few moments of his time talking about other topics as well, including last week's announcement that Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan would be the running mate of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

Duffy told the attendees that Romney's and Ryan's focus, if elected, will be reducing the deficit and creating jobs.