A controversial proposed bridge over the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota has cleared a big hurdle: Congress has approved a bill exempting the project from the requirements of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The statute bars federally funded projects that would harm such rivers' scenic qualities.
The Senate approved the measure in January. House passage, which came on March 1 on a strong 339-80 vote, is the final congressional action on the measure. The bill now goes to the White House.
The Obama administration has not issued a formal position statement on the bill, but one of the measure’s supporters, Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood supports the project.
The project’s estimated cost is $633.4 million, including $410.8 million for construction and $55 million for engineering, according to the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation. MnDOT says the project’s potential cost ranges from $574 million to $690 million.
Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who opposed the bill, said that, if enacted, it would call for the first-ever waiver of the 1968 rivers statute, which bars federal agencies from funding water-resources projects that would have "a direct and adverse effect" on the "values" of rivers designated as wild or scenic.
The project would include a 4,950-ft-long, four-lane bridge, measured from the Minnesota-side abutment to the Wisconsin abutment. It would be an extradosed bridge, with several towers, each rising about 70 ft from the bridge deck.
It would replace the two-lane Stillwater Lift Bridge, which was built in 1931 and is about a mile north of the proposed site for the planned new structure.
Congressional lawmakers wanted to act quickly because, in a Feb. 21 letter to federal, state and local officials, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) said the legislation had to be approved and enacted by March 15 or funds set aside for the project would have to be reallocated to other projects in the state.
The bill’s supporters include Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) as well as the two states’ four U.S. senators.
But the plan also has its critics, including Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who said it would require building a “megabridge” to link Oak Park Heights, Minn., and Houlton, Wis., two small municipalities with a combined population of about 5,100.