The city of Stillwater may rescind its request to modify the lift bridge schedule after members of the boating community opposed the changes. The city council is having a special meeting to discuss the matter at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 23.
A majority of speakers at an April 16 public meeting regarding possible changes spoke against the proposal.
Last summer the city council voted to request that the Coast Guard reduce the number of bridge lifts from 21 to 16 during construction of the new bridge over the St. Croix, in order to alleviate potential traffic congestion on streets.
Instead, the Coast Guard proposed eliminating two lifts and adjusting the schedule to relieve roadway congestion during peak traffic times.
The proposal would eliminate weekday lifts at 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. It would add a lift at 3 p.m., and push the 5:30 p.m. lift back half an hour. According to Deputy Branch Chief William Knutson, who serves in the Coast Guard under Bridge Administrator Eric Washburn, the last time the Coast Guard considered changing the schedule was in the early 90s.
But members of the boating community showed up at the April 16 meeting to opposed the changes.
“Everyone pretty much voiced strong sentiment against reducing the openings,” Knutson said.
Councilmember Doug Menikheim attended the meeting, along with Stillwater Public Works Director Shawn Sanders.
According to Menikheim, it was primarily the commercial boaters speaking against the changes, as well as a few boat owners.
Dick Johnson, owner of Stillwater Marina, told The Gazette that he and other businesses and associations in the area are concerned both about the immediate impact of the changes, and the precedent it could set. Although Johnson didn’t attend the meeting himself, he said a representative of Stillwater Marina and the Mulberry Point Yacht Harbor Association was present.
“We received many, many complaints here,” he said. “If they’re going to take away some of these openings, I think that’s going to critically affect our business down the road. … And I think they’re conditioning us for what they’d like to see happen 15 years from now.”
He’s concerned that future openings may be further reduced.
Although Menikheim voted last year to request the changes, he sees it differently in light of feedback from the boating community.
“My personal position on this is that the right thing to do for the city is to ask the Coast Guard to pull our request, because I don’t think that we, the city, thoroughly understood what it was we were asking for,” he said. “Nor was the process carried out, executed, in a proper manner.”
Regardless of whether the city withdraws its request, the final decision rests with the Coast Guard.
Although the Coast Guard doesn’t operate the lift bridge, it is responsible for issuing permits and regulating the bridge.
The bridge schedule itself is governed by 33 Code of Federal Regulation Section 117.667, which specifically calls out the Stillwater bridge and sets its hours of operation. Per the regulation, the bridge must operate May 15 to Oct. 15 on a set schedule.
But the Coast Guard has authority to modify some of the rules by issuing a “temporary deviation,” which is limited in scope and time.
In this case the deviation could change the schedule for this summer, and the bridge administrator could issue another temporary deviation next year, while construction continues. Once the new bridge over the St. Croix is complete, traffic will be diverted away from the old lift bridge. Even after the lift bridge is open only to pedestrian and bike traffic, it will still need to operate according to the federal regulations, unless something changes.
At this point, however, it seems likely that the Coast Guard will take the public comments to heart, even if the city doesn’t withdraw its request.
“Based on what we saw at the meeting, it does not look promising that we’ll change the schedule,” Deputy Branch Chief Knutson said.
An official decision has yet to be made by Bridge Administrator Eric Washburn.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]