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Potential lift-bridge closure alarms Wisconsin leaders

Want to get Wisconsin officials' attention? Threaten to close down the Stillwater Lift Bridge.

A provision in a Minnesota Senate bill prompted western Wisconsin legislator Kitty Rhoades, St. Joseph Township chair Theresa Johnson and three Wisconsin business representatives to attend a meeting last Thursday afternoon at St. Joseph Town Hall.

They met with Minnesota Sen. Ray Vandeveer (R-Forest Lake) to voice their concern over bills Sen. Kathy Saltzman (DFL-Woodbury) legislator had authored limiting heavy truck traffic to 26,000 pounds on the historic interstate bridge.

More concerning to some Wisconsin officials was a provision in Saltzman's bill obliging Minnesota to close the bridge if Wisconsin officials fail to agree.

Both bills are being considered on the Senate floor. Although similar bills have bounced around the Legislature for years, they gained traction in March, after a semi-trailer hit the lift bridge and caused minor damage to its structure. A similar incident last summer forced the Minnesota Department of Transportation to close the bridge for weeks.

The proposed restrictions would force heavy trucks to cross the St. Croix River at Interstate 94 after first passing through North Hudson, or six miles farther east at Roberts, said the Wisconsin business people who rely on truck traffic between the two states.

Either way, they said, a diversion would increase costs for Wisconsin businesses near the lift bridge. Further, they said a length restriction on Highway 35/64 linking Hudson and Somerset, already keeps trucks off the road connecting the communities.

According to the Wisconsin State Patrol, trucks are limited to a total length of 75 feet, and a kingpin to rear-axle length of 43 feet, in order to accommodate tight turns on municipal streets.

While the Minnesota legislators do not expect the lift bridge to be closed any time soon, they said the bridge, motorists and property in downtown Stillwater, Minn. must be protected from unwieldy truck traffic.

They agreed that there is inadequate notice and enforcement on the east side of the bridge. A recent survey showed 2,500 trucks cross the bridge each day.

In four days of enhanced enforcement last year, Minnesota State Patrol and local police officers issued 79 citations and 518 equipment violations among commercial vehicle drivers in the Stillwater area.

According to MnDOT data, in a four-year period ending in 2008, five large trucks crashed at the Chestnut and Main streets intersection, three of which involved sideswiping of vehicles or property in making turns and one in which a truck took out a light pole as it turned.

If a weight restriction on trucks and their payloads proves impractical, a length restriction could be substituted, said Saltzman. She represents the southern portion of Stillwater; Vandeveer represents the area north of Stillwater, and portions of the downtown area.

Such a restriction could prevent accidents as trucks navigate a 90-degree turn in downtown Stillwater at the Highway 95 and Chestnut Street intersection. Often, trucks end up driving on sidewalks as they make the turn.

"The (Stillwater police) chief tells me you can't get a 53-foot" truck around that corner, Vandeveer told the group.

Further, he said a length restriction would be easier to enforce, as law enforcement officers could spot violators more easily without the need for a scale.

Truckers disagreed, saying that any professional trucker should be able to make the corner without issue.

That may be true, Vandeveer said, but traffic slowdowns and damage to streetlights and other structures in downtown Stillwater defy that assessment.

"The way it is now is not working for Stillwater," he said, adding: "We're not out to hurt you."

Saltzman, a Senate Transportation Committee member, agreed, saying that Wisconsin officials must work with Minnesota officials to manage traffic on the bridge.

"It's not just what we do, it's 'Will Wisconsin help us with that?'" she said, noting that one goal would be to have Wisconsin provide better signs on its side of the river, instructing drivers to observe weight and height limits.

Currently, vehicles crossing the bridge are limited to weights of fewer than 80,000 pounds and a height of less than 13 feet, 2 inches.

When trucks traveling from Wisconsin are too large and strike the bridge, it has a major impact on Wisconsin residents, too, Saltzman said.

"Many people who come and go from Wisconsin are really inconvenienced when the bridge is closed," she said.

More discussion coming

Saltzman hoped to schedule a meeting this week with Wisconsin officials, she said.

Her goal is to write legislation that would allow some restrictions on bridge traffic, regardless of what is restricted, would make traffic across the bridge and in downtown Stillwater safer, and would add protection for the bridge.

At the same time, Saltzman knows no everyone will embrace the result.

"In the end, there are going to be some people who are not going to be pleased with what we hope to implement," she said.