I believe I have made up my mind regarding whether I will support a new bridge crossing the St. Croix River near Stillwater, but I wouldn’t mind hearing some discussion about questions I have about the bridge.
First, I question why anyone in Minnesota would support this bridge other than for altruistic reasons. Economically it doesn’t seem to make much sense for Minnesotans.
The proposal considered most often has a current price tag of $690 million. Understanding how these things work and with inevitable delays, the price almost certainly will rise above that estimate. So we are talking about spending nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars for a bridge that will punch another hole in a natural economic boundary that benefits Minnesota and the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro.
Building this bridge will further dilute the economic core that centers around the Twin Cities by enabling more development in Wisconsin. Therefore does it make sense for Minnesotans — and Minnesota’s political leaders like Governor Mark Dayton and Senator Amy Klobuchar — to support a new bridge?
Even in the best of times this does not make a lot of sense, but today we are trying to close a nearly-$6 billion budget gap in Minnesota. Diluting our state’s tax base, which would be the result of more Minnesota workers moving to Wisconsin, hardly makes sense. What are the economics supporting a bridge?
Supporting businesses in downtown Stillwater doesn’t add up. Literally. Furthermore, building a bridge a mile south of downtown Stillwater will mainline them onto Highway 36 and right past Stillwater. People in Stillwater should be careful of what they wish for. Ask residents in Long Lake, MN, for example, what happened when Highway 12 was re-routed past them.
Second, let’s consider the environment. A lot of arguments for and against a new bridge focus on what will happen directly at the proposed bridge site, but what happens there is only part of the story.
Activity miles away from a river impact a river. A river is more than the wide flow of water we cross with bridges, it is the entire watershed. A river is a system of many rivers, streams, ravines, and groundwater. Building another bridge across the St. Croix River into Wisconsin will only encourage and accelerate growth. That is not a good thing…
Sadly, we still are not very good at smart land use planning in this country. Even as we lose more and more natural resources, especially land, we don’t manage what remains very well. The very Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was a response to this fact. The very reason that legislation passed was to ensure that economic interests did not trump the long-term value of precious natural resources. Now we have a potentially dangerous precedent in making. If we can ignore the law here, why not elsewhere?
What are the environmental considerations being discussed beyond the river’s banks?
A multi-lane interstate bridge downriver only a few miles serves west central Wisconsin very well. Let’s agree that the Stillwater Lift Bridge does not serve Stillwater as well. The complaints center around traffic problems in downtown Stillwater. Does that justify building yet another multi-lane bridge across the river?
If the trouble is an aging bridge funneling traffic into the heart of a congested downtown, then shouldn’t the solution be a new bridge that does not do this?
Luther Dale, chair of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, proposed a sensible answer to the bridge question and one that I think addresses legitimate concerns I am raising here. There are legitimate concerns about a “lower and slower” bridge solution like the one Mr. Dale proposes, but again that seems to take into account the impact of a bridge right at the bridge site. Any new bridge will have impact well beyond the crossing point.
If we make a mistake here, there is no turning back.