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COLUMN: Signs of spring: Bridge work begins

By Roger Humphrey

President, St. Croix Economic Development Corporation

Residents of the St. Croix Valley are sure to enjoy this overdue sign of spring -- at long last, construction contracts are in place to allow work to begin on the new St. Croix Crossing bridge.

The first evidence of construction activity will occur on the Minnesota side of the river, where the approaches to the new bridge on Highways 36 and 95 plus frontage roads are set to begin.

Later this spring contractors will be in the water to build the foundations for bridge piers. A separate contract will determine which contractor builds the piers. Later this year contracts will be let for the bridge approach on the Wisconsin (St. Croix County) side.

All of this is good news. Residents and businesses in the St. Croix Valley have waited decades for an improved crossing over the St. Croix River.

Why the delay? The vexing issue involved the exceptional qualities of the St. Croix, which enjoys the protected status of a federal Wild and Scenic River. Several attempts were made to authorize a new bridge only for them to end unsuccessfully in litigation.

Meanwhile, the eastern edge of the Twin Cities and west central Wisconsin continued to grow, only adding to the woes of using a 1930s era lift bridge in downtown Stillwater, Minn.

Under President George W. Bush, an Executive Order was authorized that created an environmental streamlining process. The order required top-level officials from federal, state, and local agencies to work together so that projects bogged down by environmental challenges could move forward.

The St. Croix Crossing was among an initial list of seven projects in the United States that was subjected to the streamlining process. From mid-2003 through 2006, about 30 stakeholders met regularly in Stillwater under the direction of a facilitator/mediator. Their work ended with recommendations on a preferred corridor for the bridge and a preliminary design.

By November of 2006, the Federal Highway Administration issued a Record of Decision, meaning all reviews were complete and the project was eligible for funding.

A public comment period following the Record of Decision led to another lawsuit. The judge asked the National Park Service to better explain itself -- historically the Park Service opposed the project, but during the stakeholder process, the agency supported it.

Another environmental review was conducted by the Park Service, and in the fall of 2010, they concluded the proposed project violated the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In their explanation, the Park Service outlined how an exemption to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act could be pursued. Congress -- the same legislative branch that created the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to protect resources like the St. Croix -- also had the authority to grant an exemption.

Beginning in the spring of 2011, the suggestion of pursing an exemption resulted in numerous visits to Stillwater from U.S. senators and representatives. Every project or worthy cause seemingly needs a champion -- someone who can take ownership and see it through to the end.

Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota proved to be the river crossing's champion. She proclaimed on public radio that the St. Croix Valley deserved a new bridge, and residents had waited too long for it to happen. Her visit led to another senator or representative touring of the aging lift bridge. Then another. And another. Big Mo (Momentum) was now on the side of bridge supporters.

In reality, the project enjoyed the support of both governors, both state transportation secretaries, state senators and representatives, and numerous locally-elected officials. After decades of delay, suddenly the stage was set for action in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Senate acted by unanimous consent. The House passed the exemption by a wide margin, and the bill was signed by the President last March, the St. Croix Valley had earned its long-await bridge.

And now this spring we can witness the historic activities of building a modern river crossing.

Congratulations, St. Croix Valley. We got our bridge.