The battle of St. Croix Bridge


Rich with Minnesota history, Stillwater sits on the scenic St. Croix River, separating Minnesota and Wisconsin. Its historic Stillwater Lift Bridge is one of three east metro area crossings (Interstate 94 and State Highway 243 by Osceola are the other two).

Part 1 of 2 – click here for Not this bridge, not now

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and local business owners have been advocating a new bridge for 15 years, hoping to replace the lift bridge with a four-lane span to the north. New bridge proposals have sparked interesting debates over the past five years, especially in recent months. Before we can analyze new bridge policy, we need to lay out the crossing’s history.

Let’s start at the very beginning – of the legal fight at least. In 1968, Congress passed the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA), protecting specific rivers which it deemed – you guessed it – wild and scenic. Initially, the act’s ‘National Wild and Scenic Rivers System’ protected the St. Croix’s upper stretch.In 1972, the St. Croix’s lower stretch was added to this system, making the river fully protected by the federal government.

In 1995, the FHWA proposed a four-lane highway bridge over the St. Croix. By 1996, after receiving a motivating lawsuit from the Sierra Club, the National Park Service (NPS) reviewed the proposal and concluded that it would have a ‘direct and adverse’ effect on the St. Croix River. This effectively halted the project.

In 2002, a group of stakeholders, from the Sierra Club to the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, met to consider a new plan for the bridge. Two years later they proposed four ‘build alternatives.’ The Sierra Club immediately pointed out that Alternative B-1 was nearly identical to the original proposal. Despite objections, the FHWA chose Alternative B-1 in 2006. Its decision was backed by an earlier NPS ruling saying the B-1 bridge proposal, complete with its environmental mitigation package, didn’t violate the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

In 2007, the Sierra Club sued the Highway Administration and NPS. Last March, the judge dismissed six of the seven counts. The judge upheld the count that the NPS “wrongly concluded that the Proposed Bridge project would not have a direct and adverse effect on the Lower St. Croix’s scenic, recreational, wildlife, and other natural values.”

As a result, the Park Service was ordered to reevaluate the B-1 proposal. On October 15, 2010, it decided that the bridge would have a ‘direct and adverse’ effect on the river.

The project has been effectively halted. At this point, there are three viable options: the group of stakeholders could go back to the drawing board and choose one of the alternatives, the project could be abandoned, or bridge supporters could lobby Congress to make an exception to the Rivers Act. The latter is the focus of a newly formed group called the ‘St. Croix Bridge Coalition’, primarily composed of business leaders on both sides of the river.

Recent local reporting has focused on two exceptions that have been made to the WSRA, but when we talked to Dan Haas of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, we got a different picture. While there are only two cases of exceptions made for a river after it’s been protected, Congress has made plenty of exceptions during a river’s inclusion into the Rivers Act. Those exceptions don’t garner the same level of publicity.

Even so, there has never been an exception in the original legislation or afterwards that comes close to the magnitude of the St. Croix River Crossing. In fact, most of the exceptions improve the rivers’ environments, which makes this proposed exception unique in several ways.

Part Two of this article will examine the benefits and drawbacks of moving forward with a proposed St. Croix River Crossing.

Photo credit: Akibubblet, creative commons