After decades of waiting, the Stillwater area celebrated the opening of a new bridge over the St. Croix River Wednesday, Aug. 2.
Local, state and federal officials gathered on the Minnesota approach to the bridge at 10 a.m. for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to dedicate the nearly $650 million project.
Almost a mile long, the new structure that connects Oak Park Heights, Minnesota, to St. Joseph, Wisconsin, replaces the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge, which is now closed to motor vehicle traffic. The new bridge required Congressional approval to exempt it from the requirements of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
MnDOT estimates roughly 2,500 people attended the ceremony.
Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber and St. Joseph Town Board Chair Tom Spaniol served as the masters of ceremonies.
“We look forward to a new normal,” McComber said, adding that “normal” has forever changed in Oak Park Heights with the landscape shifts caused by the bridge project.
Spaniol said there’s a stark contrast between the two sides of the river, but added that in spite of the differences, the cooperation on the St. Croix Crossing project was a model future endeavors.
Other speakers focused on themes of unity and bipartisanship — along with frequent jabs about the Vikings and Packers.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton joked that the next day the state would begin construction of a toll booth.
“We’re going to charge double to everyone who has a Green Bay Packers sticker,” he said.
On a serious note, he praised the cooperation between the two states on the bridge project.
“We agreed to just do it, and we did,” he said.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker shared similar sentiments.
“This river, the St. Croix River, might divide us, but this bridge unites us,” Walker said. “It even unites us as Vikings and Packers fans.”
He praised Dayton, saying any governor who could unite former congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Sen. Al Franken on a subject was doing a good job.
“The story of this bridge is really a story of great perseverance,” Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind said.
He said the process of involving stakeholders in planning for the new bridge was effective and helped create a bridge that balanced historic preservation, environmental protections and the need for an improved river crossing.
Wisconsin Congressman Sean Duffy joked that despite the cooperation required to make the new bridge a reality, there was controversy over where to have the ribbon-cutting ceremony — Minnesota or Wisconsin.
“You’re in Minnesota, but you’re looking at the more beautiful part of the river on the Wisconsin side,” he said.
Duffy emphasized the bipartisan effort behind the project.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who couldn’t be present because of votes being taken in the Senate, offered similar thoughts in a letter read by McComber.
“This project stands out as an example of what we can accomplish when we put politics aside,” Klobuchar wrote.
McComber, who hadn’t seen the letter ahead of time, did feel the need to clarify when Klobuchar’s letter said Stillwater would finally have its new bridge.
“Excuse me, but this is the St. Croix River bridge, and it’s in Oak Park Heights and St. Joseph,” she said.
At the end of the ceremony, there were four rounds of ribbon-cuttings involving various officials and stakeholders who were involved in the bridge project.
A long time coming
According to former Stillwater mayor Jay Kimble, there has been talk of replacing the Stillwater Lift Bridge since the floods of 1951.
For years the project was delayed due to a lack of funding.
It was 1985 when the formal environmental review process began for the St. Croix Crossing project. A final environmental impact statement wasn’t released until 10 years later.
The project faced controversy and legal challenges over the impact it would have on the St. Croix River, which was protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. There was also argument over the fate of the historic lift bridge.
A stakeholders process in the early to mid-2000s agreed on a plan to build an “extradosed” bridge. The plan also called for improving about 3 miles of roadway in each state, preserving the lift bridge by converting it to a pedestrian and bicycle crossing as part of a new trail, and implementing other “mitigation” items related to historic preservation and environmental concerns.
When the National Park Service refused to approve the project based on the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, advocates for a new bridge sought congressional action.
In March 2012, President Barack Obama signed a law exempting the project from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, if certain mitigation steps were taken.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held in May 2013.
The bridge opened around 8 p.m. Aug. 2, 2017, approximately a year behind the initial schedule.
Many who have awaited the bridge for years expressed relief at its completion and excitement for the possibilities.
Doris Erler, 99, of New Richmond, Wis., was seated in the front row at the ceremony. Her sister — Helen Josephson, 101, of Stillwater Township — was also present for the event, but was overcome by the heat and observed the festivities near an ambulance on site.
The two sisters were among a handful of people present who had attended the opening ceremony for the lift bridge on July 2, 1931. Erler didn’t expect she’d live to see a new bridge.
“As it was being talked about for many years, I more or less thought it wouldn’t happen so I could experience it, but I’m very glad to have seen it,” Erler said. “I’ll be still happier when I get a chance to ride across.”
Jim Dahl, president of the Stillwater Lions Club, was among those excited for the convenience of the long-awaited bridge.
“We moved here in 1977, and my Realtor promised me a bridge in five years,” Dahl said. “So I have been patiently waiting. We are thrilled. We live in Houlton and the accessibility to downtown and to the Twin Cities is going to be a whole new life.”
Hannah Sinclair, a senior at Stillwater High School who attended the ice cream social held in Oak Park Heights after the dedication, said she’s excited to see less congestion in downtown Stillwater.
“I think it will be a lot more enjoyable for pedestrians and visitors downtown without dealing with all the traffic,” she said. “I think a lot of us are going to enjoy using the trail, either for biking or walking or longboarding and skateboarding. I’m going to really enjoy it a lot.”
Eric Johnson, city administrator of Oak Park Heights, said he’s pleased to see the project completed.
“A project of this magnitude took years of work, and maybe we can decompress a little and pivot to the impacts of the bridge, and we would hope those would be positive,” he said.
Terry Zoller, a Stillwater resident who was construction manager for the St. Croix Crossing project, is retiring with the completion of the bridge, after a 45-year career with MnDOT. Zoller, who supported the bridge as a former Stillwater City Council member, feels a sense of accomplishment now that it’s finished.
He said his plan for the next morning was to sit on his deck with a cup of coffee and watch cars go across the new bridge.
Alicia Lebens contributed to this story.
See more photos from the day here.