NATURAL RESOURCES:

House approves bill allowing bridge over scenic Minn. river

The House this morning voted to allow a $690 million highway bridge over the federally protected St. Croix River, ending decades of legal and legislative wrangling and setting in motion what would be the largest bridge project in Minnesota history.

The bill (S. 1134) from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) passed 339-80, easily surpassing the two-thirds majority needed under a procedure known as suspension of the rules, which does not allow any amendments. It passed the Senate by unanimous consent in January (Greenwire, Jan. 24).

The bill, which exempts the bridge from protections under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, was opposed by 64 Democrats, including Minnesota Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, who argued the project is a boondoggle that will siphon funding away from other critical bridge projects.

They were joined by 16 Republicans, most of whom are viewed as environmental moderates.

"Congress' passage of this $700 million bridge bill doesn't diminish its excessive cost, size, negative effect on Highway 36 traffic congestion, or its adverse impact on the St. Croix River," McCollum said after the vote. "Replacing one bridge at a cost of $700 million to the exclusion of more than 1,100 other structurally deficient bridges in Minnesota places too many communities and motorists at risk."

Critics of the bridge, which include Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Parks Conservation Association, argued the St. Croix River Crossing project will cost dozens of times more on a per-vehicle basis than what it cost to rebuild Minnesota's Interstate 35W bridge after it collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in 2007.

Environmentalists warned that lifting protections in place since 1968 would set a bad precedent for other waterways covered under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. If signed into law, the bill would be the first time Congress has ever exempted a bridge project from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects 12,598 miles of 203 rivers in 38 states.

"This action harms the St. Croix and puts at risk nearly 200 rivers across the nation, when more could have been done to protect them," said Craig Obey, senior vice president for government affairs for NPCA.

The vote is a victory for bridge advocates who have argued a new crossing is needed to replace an 80-year-old lift bridge that, when elevated, causes congestion in downtown Stillwater, Minn. The new bridge is expected to improve traffic safety, reduce water pollution in the St. Croix and improve commuting for residents on the Wisconsin side of the bridge.

Wisconsin Reps. Ron Kind (D) and Tammy Baldwin (D) in a letter to colleagues before today's vote urged Democrats to consider support for the bridge from a handful of labor groups including AFL-CIO, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. For some, the potential for new jobs appears to have outweighed cost or environmental concerns.

Bachmann said the project's price tag could have been contained had it not been for the years of legal attacks from opponents.

"After decades of bureaucratic holdups and frivolous lawsuits from radical environmentalists, the people of the St. Croix River Valley will finally have their bridge," Bachmann said in a statement following this morning's vote. "I represent the most patient people in the nation and I could not be more thrilled about the outcome of today's vote."

In floor debate last night, Bachmann argued the bridge would have cost $80 million to complete back in 1992 if opponents had not tied the project up for decades in the federal courts.

"We are here in full, square agreement with the administration saying, 'Let's get this done on behalf of the people of these two states.'" she said. "Let's do what should have been done decades ago."

The project was last approved in 2006 by the federal Department of Transportation. But the National Park Service in 2010 said the impacts to the river cannot "be avoided or eliminated," and therefore that the project cannot comply with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Local officials are strongly opposed to removing the Stillwater lift bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The current plan calls for turning the lift bridge into a bicycle and pedestrian loop trail.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday reiterated his agency's position on the bridge, saying "a wild and scenic river is a wild and scenic river." However, with unanimous support from the Senate and overwhelming support in the House, a presidential veto would be unlikely.

Small changes have been made to existing wild and scenic designations for things like lamprey eel remediation or contouring of river banks, but never to authorize a transportation project.