Top Stories of 2012: Old dream becomes new bridge

St. Croix River span highlights projects in Valley

Workers prepare to drive a steel tube into the St. Croix River bottom in June as part of load tests for the new St. Croix River Bridge Construction on the Minnesota approach to the span on Minnesota Highway 36 begins in the spring. The new bridge is expeced to be finished in 2016.
Workers prepare to drive a steel tube into the St. Croix River bottom in June as part of load tests for the new St. Croix River Bridge Construction on the Minnesota approach to the span on Minnesota Highway 36 begins in the spring. The new bridge is expeced to be finished in 2016.

A decades-long journey reaches an end in 2016.

By then, motorists traveling between Minnesota and Wisconsin can cross the St. Croix River on a modern four-lane bridge instead of the almost 90-year-old narrow, two-lane steel Lift Bridge that takes traffic through the heart of downtown Stillwater.

How the St. Croix Valley went from an idea discussed, debated and fought over in court to the start of actual construction on the estimated $700 million project is the Stillwater Gazette’s top story of 2012.

Yet while the new St. Croix River Crossing bridge is the region’s major public works project for the next several years, it is just one of several transportation and recreation-related projects that many local officials and politicians believe will benefit the Valley for years to come.

But the project hailed as an economic and transportation gem by some is still criticized by others as a waste of money and damaging to the St. Croix River’s fragile environment.

How Stillwater and the Valley revived a stalled project is a story of perseverance and some political lobbying of lawmakers on both sides of the river.

The stage for the final push to get the bridge project started began in early October 2010, when the National Park Service, in response to a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling, issued a letter saying it could not support a new St. Croix River bridge due to the span’s potential negative impact on the river under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The NPS decision effectively halted much of the planning work on a new St. Croix River bridge. The one option left for bridge supporters to pursue under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was getting Congress to pass legislation allowing the Secretary of the Interior to override the NPS and approve the project.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., filed a bill in the U.S. House to authorize construction of the new bridge.

Meanwhile, in early 2011, Stillwater officials, led by Mayor Ken Harycki, began a concerted effort to convince state officials that the aging Lift Bridge needed to be closed and replaced by the proposed new span.

Harycki called for closing the Lift Bridge after the span was featured on a History Channel cable television series spotlighting examples of the nation’s failing infrastruction.

Part of the mayor’s effort included taking politicians on walking tours of the Lift Bridge to show the numerous problems with the span. In the span of less than a month in March and April 2011, Bachmann, Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken walked the span with city and Washington County officials.

Eventually, Dayton, Klobuchar and Franken joined Bachmann and elected officials in Wisconsin in support of constructing a new St. Croix River Bridge.

But stumbling blocks remained. Bachmann’s St. Croix Bridge bill was stalled in Congress and Dayton warned that if lawmakers did not act on the bill, he would use funds already earmarked for St. Croix bridge construction on other transportation projects.

Bridge opponents made an attempt to stop Bachmann’s bill. U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison opposed the bridge measure, citing the project’s cost and projected increase in traffic on Minnesota Highway 36 through the eastern suburbs to St. Joseph, Wis.

Despite that opposition, Bachmann’s bill passed the U.S. House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support in early March. President Obama signed the measure March 14.

At a Stillwater event days after the bill’s signing, then-state Department of Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel announced that veteran MnDOT engineer Jon Chiglo would manage the St. Croix River bridge project.

During the spring and early summer, MnDOT held a series of open houses to explain the project to Valley residents and businesses. But Chiglo and other MnDOT officials faced having to address concerns from Oak Park Heights officials over relocating utilities along MN 36 frontage roads as part of the bridge project.

Although MnDOT officials said Oak Park Heights had originally accepted plans for the MN 36 portion of the project in the middle 1990s, state and city officials eventually worked out an agreement on utility relocation and the Oak Park Heights City Council approved a resolution agreeing to MnDOT’s frontage road plans.

MnDOT officials said that frontage road work is expected to take two years to finish. It is the first stage of the bridge project, followed by construction of the bridge and finally, work on the Wisconsin approach.

Meanwhile, the Stillwater City Council ran into an issue with the State Auditor’s Office over a donation the council made to a pro-bridge group, the St. Croix River Crossing Coalition.

The council gave the group, co-chaired by Harycki, $80,000 in city TIF funds. That decision led to a citizen’s complaint to the Auditor’s Office regarding the donation.

The Auditor’s Office eventually ruled that the city’s donation violated state laws regarding how much money local governments can give to groups; found the city had no formal contract with the group, and that the city should not have given the out-of-state organization money because the coalition was not registered in Minnesota. The coalition eventually returned the city’s money.

Despite the political and administrative issues that cropped up regarding the new St. Croix River bridge, preliminary work started during the summer. Load tests were done on the St. Croix River bottom at two locations and preliminary work started on the new Beach Road overpass and Phil’s Tara Hideaway parking lot.

In October, MnDOT said work on the new bridge piers would begin in 2013.

In November, crews moved the old Bergstein Shoddy Mill and warehouse from its Oak Park Heights location to a new home across from the River Oasis Cafe in Stillwater. The move was one of several mitigation projects that are part of the overall bridge project.

While planning for the new St. Croix River Bridge continues to draw attention, the Lift Bridge continued to cast a shadow over the downtown area. MnDOT undertook a five-month repair and rehabilitation project on the historic span, closing the bridge to vehicle and pedestrian traffic from Sept. 10 to Dec. 7.

However, that recently completed project is expected to be the last major work done by MnDOT on the Lift Bridge. Once the new St. Croix River span is opened, the Lift Bridge will be closed to vehicles and become part of a pedestrian and bicycle loop trail.

And the St. Croix River bridge is not the only project scheduled in the Valley in the next several years. MnDOT plans to construct new interchanges on MN 36 at Hilton Trail in Pine Springs and English Street in Maplewood.

The state Department of Natural Resources is in the middle of construction on the Brown’s Creek State Trail, a nearly six-mile connection between the Gateway State Trail and downtown Stillwater on the old Stillwater Zephyr dinner train rail line.