Minnesota, Wisconsin to appeal Stillwater bridge decision

ST. PAUL (AP) — Minnesota and Wisconsin will ask the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a decision blocking construction of a four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River near Stillwater, officials said Tuesday.
“The St. Croix Valley region is facing growing transportation needs that must be addressed quickly,” said Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson. “Clearly, an alternative must be found.”
Last week, U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled the National Park Service acted within its authority to view the proposed span as a “water resource project” that would harm the river’s special qualities.
In addition to their appeal, the states will initiate discussions with the National Park Service to try to resolve the issue out of court.
The park service is disappointed with the decision to return to court, said Midwest regional director William Schenk.
“We are still willing to work with interested parties to resolve transportation needs while protecting the values of the Lower St. Croix River,” he said.
Minnesota Department of Transportation officials say the existing two-lane lift bridge, built in 1931, can barely handle the 17,000 vehicles that travel over it daily.
The state was within a month of letting construction bids for the $60 million replacement bridge in the fall of 1996 when the park service said it was going to assess the project in response to a lawsuit against it by the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter and the Voyageurs Region National Park Association.
Opponents of the project contend it would hurt the federally protected river and encourage urban sprawl from the Twin Cities area into western Wisconsin.
Transportation officials should look at traffic management, road improvements and transit options before building a new bridge, said Ginny Yingling, director of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.
“Failing all those, we need to look at a bridge that’s appropriate,” she said. “We think MnDOT can be a whole lot more creative.”
Yingling said Sierra Club attorneys think Montgomery’s decision can withstand review by the higher court.
The transportation department has spent an estimated $14 million on planning and site preparation, including removing about 60 homes in Oak Park Heights. The new bridge would run through Oak Park Heights, a mile south of downtown Stillwater, across the river to a ravine in Wisconsin.
Attorneys for the state had argued that the bridge project did not come under the law cited by the park service, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1965.
The states will ask Congress to address the policy implications of allowing the act to take precedence over transportation policy.
“Given that Judge Montgomery’s interpretation of Congress’s intent has such broad national impacts, we think it is important and appropriate that Congress either reject or affirm that interpretation,” said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.