Stillwater Bridge: A “Boondoggle” or just a Boon?

After yesterday’s passing of a bill to replace the Stillwater Bridge sponsored by Senator Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) by a large bipartisan majority, the commentary around the Capitol continued to reflect on the $225 million that had just been spent on what our very own Representative Brett Hulsey (D-Madison) called a “boondoggle bridge”.

In his press release, Hulsey urged members to vote against the bill because over 1,000 other deficient bridges exist in Wisconsin. Think about it. Yep, he just argued that we shouldn’t fix one because there are other problems out there. Not a good start.  Shahla Werner, the Director of the regional Sierra Club is also quoted in the release saying,

“This bill will pave the way for constructing a $633 million bridge just seven miles north of an
eight lane bridge while ignoring more reasonable bridge upgrades…This massive project unnecessarily
jeopardizes the federally protected St. Croix Scenic Riverway.”

Now, the good Director’s first two claims are true: the bridge will cost upwards of $633 million and is about 7 miles north of Hudson, Wisconsin which has I94 running through it into Minnesota. While true, those statements are misleading.

    1. The first is that Wisconsin is not spending $633 million; Wisconsin authorized bonding for $225 million, our share of the bridge. (The additional implication that this will be funded through bonds and not the internal budget is another matter entirely…)
    2. The second statement about Hudson’s I94 bridge is misleading in that its not exactly an empty bridge. During peak time the bridge is bumper to bumper for all the lanes, cars backed up from St. Paul 10 miles farther into Minnesota. That doesn’t sound like a bridge capable of adding another 18,000 cars per day without extreme congestion and cost.  Additionally, the next nearest bridge is in my home town of Osceola, and is built just like the I35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis a few years back prompting strict weight limits and frequent inspection. Neither option can handle the strain.
So, it’s clear that a bridge is needed, but why this bridge now? Why not one of the other 1,000 bridges that Hulsey spoke about? I tossed out some historical perspective yesterday but today I’m going to explain why this bridge is needed, not necessarily more than others, but is needed.
 
  • According to data collected by the Federal Highway Administration, the Stillwater bridge has two peers that have over 10,000 vehicles per day and a structural deficiency rating of less than 3/100.  (Stillwater bridge is labeled as the Township of St. Joseph in this data) So that already puts it near the top of the replacement list. In all honesty, if the bill included provisions to bond a total of $600 million for all three of these bridges, I would be ok with that.  People are at risk daily because of political gridlock and that’s not okay.
  • Stillwater bridge closes annually in the Spring when the water of the river rises to touch the deck and sometimes flood the roadway of the bridge. That water enhances the corrosion of the beams, many of which are original 1931 steel, leading to the infamous rust holes in the support structure. That’s right, I can see through the bridge’s supports because they are so weak and rusted away.  Every so often, a large truck will come across the bridge and actually hit the beams, bending the steel!
  • For more commentary and public views (some of which are blatantly ignorant of the past forty years of regional history) check out the recent MPR discussion between the Mayor of Stillwater and a representative from the Sierra Club. It’s interesting.
As far as Brett Hulsey goes, as the lone member of the Transportation Committee to vote against the bill, I just have to question his reasoning. Without any other bridge funding proposals on the table, the argument of we should fund others just doesn’t fly. Representative Hulsey, you’re on the damn committee charged with writing these sort of things. If fixing other bridges is really important to you, then write the legislation.
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The Stillwater Bridge: a Brief History

There are over 2,000 bridges in Wisconsin deemed to be structurally deficient and earlier yesterday, the Wisconsin Assembly passed a bipartisan bill to rebuild the one at the center of one of the longest and strangest controversies between the Cheeseheads and East Dakota. Having lived in Osceola, Wisconsin, twenty miles from this bridge, I can assure you that I have traveled it extensively, and I’ve followed the history closely.

The Stillwater Bridge has gained notoriety over the years for being exceptionally frightening to drive (or walk!) across, and for being habitually closed for repairs and floods. Conversations about replacing the bridge started when the bridge turned 50 (in 1981) and when the Twin Cities was just beginning to grow enough to consider Stillwater a suburb.  Early on, there was much confusion over who should pay more for the bridge, Wisconsin or Minnesota?  Complicating matters more is the fact that the bridge lies on the St. Croix River National Scenic Riverway, an area with strict construction requirements and conservation laws. Nevertheless, plans had slowly trudged along.

In 1994, when it seemed like a new bridge would come soon (the current bridge could legally retire now…) two of my friends who lived in Stillwater at the time were subject to Minnesota’s Eminent Domain and their neighborhood was bought out for the new bridge that would soon be coming. Nearing twenty years after THAT, and the end is finally in sight. Governor Walker sent a letter to US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood asking for support in an exemption to the protections placed on the Scenic Riverway. This letter mirrors one sent by Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Gottleib to Secretary LaHood.

Both letters note that the appropriate Congressional process is being pursued by two matching resolutions S. 1134 in the Senate and H.R. 850 in the House. The Senate’s version features signatures from ALL FOUR of Wisconsin and Minnesota’s senators (Klobuchar, Franklin, and Kohl for the Democrats, and Johnson for the Republicans) Additionally, the House version features the four most affected congressmen in the states, Democrat Ron Kind who actually represents the district, and Republicans Sean Duffy, Michelle Bachmann, and Chip Cravaack.

This is as bipartisan as it gets folks and its exciting to see finally happen.

Tomorrow, a follow up post will appear where I make the case as to why this bridge should be funded, despite cries from the likes of Representative Brett Hulsey that its not necessary.