In last month’s Powering Progress, we told you about the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (Mn/DOT) new 50-year transportation vision. So how does Minnesota’s most-talked-about transportation project—the proposed St. Croix River Crossing bridge near Stillwater—stack up when compared to the vision’s eight guiding principles? Here’s our take.
- “Leverage public investments to achieve multiple purposes.” According to Mn/DOT, “multiple purposes” can include public goals such as “environmental stewardship, economic competitiveness, public health and energy independence.” The primary purpose of the bridge project is to relieve congestion in downtown Stillwater. While environmental and historic mitigations were considered heavily in the design and location of the proposed bridge, there will be impacts from a huge new bridge in the middle of the wild and scenic St. Croix River valley. And though the bridge will create new economic development, especially on the Wisconsin side, it’s likely that most of this development would have otherwise located closer to the job centers of the Twin Cities. This means the bridge doesn’t create overall regional economic growth—it just helps move the growth to areas that require longer commutes and strain local infrastructure.
- “Ensure accessibility.” The project does a good job of supporting access for people with disabilities and includes new bicycle and pedestrian trails. But several intersections will be widened significantly, making it more challenging to cross for pedestrians—especially seniors or people with disabilities.
- “Build to a maintainable scale.” The project seems vastly overbuilt to serve the 18,400 vehicles that travel over the existing lift bridge each day. As this video shows, the project will primarily run through agricultural areas rather than serving regional centers. The video also shows that several other roads will be widened in addition to the bridge. While Mn/DOT assumes increased traffic once the bridge is built, it’s not guaranteed, since demand for housing at the edge of the region has declined as gas prices rise and people move closer to employment hubs. Additionally, the bridge will be built to last roughly 80 years—will Mn/DOT be able to replace something of this size in the future?
- “Ensure regional connections.” The bridge will primarily connect New Richmond, Wisconsin (population: 8,375) with the eastern side of the Twin Cities region. The existing Interstate-94 bridge—located only six miles to the south—can likely provide the needed regional connections.
- “Integrate safety.” There is no doubt that the existing Stillwater Lift Bridge is in need of repair. But if the state spends nearly $700 million on one project, it won’t have enough money to fix other bridges or roadways with safety problems.
- “Emphasize reliable and predictable options.” In its vision, Mn/DOT says that “the reliability of the system and predictability of travel time are frequently as important or more important than speed,” and that the state needs to “prioritize multiple multimodal options over reliance on a single option.” While the project will reduce delays caused by the lifting schedule of the current bridge, it includes no transit options.
- “Strategically fix the system.” Proponents argue that the project is a strategic fix to the structurally-deficient lift bridge. But the bridge will limit the funds available to fix problems in other areas. In a Twin Cities regional highway system with numerous bridges in need of repair (one in 17 are “structurally deficient”), a number of traffic bottlenecks, and a shortage of funding, spending hundreds of millions on the Stillwater bridge isn’t strategic.
- “Use partnerships.” Mn/DOT has involved many different voices in the planning process and has several federal and state partners. But it could explore additional partnerships with Metro Transit to provide transit access in the area or the U.S. Coast Guard to adjust the lift schedule to reduce congestion.
Overall, while the proposed St. Croix River Crossing fits with some aspects of Mn/DOT’s vision, it falls short in other ways—primarily in scale and lost opportunity to support valuable projects elsewhere. When put in a broader regional context, the nearly $700-million project, which is more than twice as expensive as any road project in Minnesota history, isn’t a responsible use of state funds.
Just two years ago, Mn/DOT identified unfunded highway needs that add up to $50 billion over 30 years—a calculation based on building big, expensive projects like this bridge. But in a 2010 update of the Twin Cities Transportation Policy Plan, Mn/DOT and the Metropolitan Council recognized that $50 billion is an improbable number. Instead, “the region needs a transportation strategy that is realistic, innovative and focused on leveraging available dollars for the most benefit while coordinating those investments with land use decisions.”
The proposed St. Croix River Crossing doesn’t fit into Mn/DOT’s new vision and plan and does not recognize today’s realities. For the sake of the entire Twin Cities region, we encourage Mn/DOT to find a less expensive and more multi-modal solution for the area. We think the best solution is repairing the existing bridge while making improvements in downtown Stillwater and creating new transit options. Another option is a smaller new bridge, which is supported by the Sensible Stillwater Bridge Partnership.
Want to see an alternative to the big St. Croix River Crossing bridge?
Key proponents of the “big and expensive” bridge include Governor Mark Dayton, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The project requires Congress to grant it an exemption to proceed, and there’s time to tell your elected officials that you do not support the current proposal. Please take a moment to encourage them to find a more realistic and less expensive solution.