Unless you live near St. Croix County you probably won’t hear much about the debate to replace the old Stillwater Bridge which connects Stillwater MN (pop. 18,000) and Houlton WI (pop. 400), but you might raise an eyebrow to its hefty price tag of $690,000,000. Now to be fair, as the debate goes, the bridge does physically connect the far outskirts of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area (15th largest metropolitan in the US) to the fastest growing county in Wisconsin – St. Croix County. The Wisconsin side of the newly proposed bridge is about 6 miles north of Hudson’s I-94 bridge to Minnesota and south of Somerset (pop. 3000) and about 15 minutes from New Richmond (pop. 8500).
The 1931 Stillwater bridge is old and its functionality is dated – snarling traffic in Stillwater at peak hours. Yet, as early as April 2011, the Minnesota Department of Transportation deemed it safe. So safe in fact, in their MnDOT Condition Report, the opening sentence states rather frankly “The Stillwater Lift Bridge is safe”.
So why all the hoopla? The US Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent, the House passed it by wide margins too 339-80, and even President Obama signed off on the bill. Technically the bill (s.1134) isn’t even a funding bill; it only removes the barriers that the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act instilled that prevent the bridge from being built. With thousands of bridges deemed obsolete and potential ready to collapse by the Obama administration how can we possibly pay for all of them?
My curiosity further grew when a Democrat on the Minnesota side of the bridge, Betty McCollum (D) MN 4th district, voiced strong opposition to this monstrosity and a striking contrast to Republican Sean Duffy’s viewpoint that didn’t quite seem to follow the conservatism he proclaimed to follow that got him elected to office. In fact, if a politician didn’t have a D or R after his name, you would swear that McCollum was the Republican and Duffy was the Democrat based on their bridge beliefs.
Something doesn’t make sense to me and it all gets back to what is being connected by the bridge and maybe more importantly why. So, on the unordinary hot spring day of March 28th, I set out with stopwatch in hand to get down to basics and try to make sense of something that didn’t compute. Surely we are not debating that a population of 300 needs to be connected by a $690,000,000 bridge. The answer needs to be further upstream maybe Somerset or more likely New Richmond with a growing population of 8500, but what are the facts and does that make spending that kind of money more palatable.
Here are the results of my time trials:
From I-94 and I-694 (E. of St. Paul) to downtown New Richmond 30:24
From downtown New Richmond to I-694 and Hwy 36 (NE of St. Paul) 30:33
What does this mean? It certainly means that you are not going to beat me to downtown St. Paul if you take the Stillwater Bridge from New Richmond instead of taking existing routes. You aren’t going to beat me to Minneapolis either. In fact, you aren’t going to beat me anywhere in the Twin Cities and if you happen to it will only be by the short distance of driving up I-694 or about 2 minutes.
The very basis of the reasoning to spend $690,000,000 on a new bridge was to join the fastest growing county in Wisconsin to the 15th largest metropolitan area in the United States, as argued by our Congressman Duffy, and that basis was proven false. The bridge does indeed join the two states, but the cost/benefit rational makes no sense what so ever. This bridge which destroys the pristine waters of the St. Croix River is a bridge of convenience, it is a bridge of many wants, it replaces a MnDOT approved existing bridge and most importantly in a country being rebuilt on a mountain of debt it is a bridge that is unaffordable and impractical.
Extra: Time trials from I-94/I-694 to Roberts to New Richmond