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Not This Bridge, Not Now

January 25, 2011 By Riordan Frost, Policy Associate

Part 2 of a 2-Part Series (read part 1)

The St. Croix River Crossing is a complicated issue, but when the current proposal is considered overall, it is unwise. Building this new bridge would be economically imprudent, environmentally damaging, and short-sighted.

It is easy to look at a project like this, see that it will have some positive economic effect and some immediate congestion relief, and support it. Once the proposal and its policy implications are examined, however, it fails to justify itself.

Under the current proposal, the St. Croix River Crossing is projected to cost $668 million. That is almost ¾ of the cost of the entire Central Corridor, except instead of providing a light rail link from Minneapolis to the capital, it adds a bridge over a river that already has three bridges in a thirty mile stretch.

Who the bridge would benefit and how much requires close examination, but it is clear that the benefits focus on the suburban communities on each side of the river. It comes as no surprise that the coalition that is going to Congress to lobby for the crossing is primarily composed of Stillwater's business community.

Charles Marohn, an engineer writing for the Strong Towns blog, dubbed the bridge an ‘old economy’ project because it carries an exorbitant price tag even though it benefits few and will do little to ultimately relieve congestion. Marohn says MnDOT’s cost/benefit analysis is riddled with flaws, and is heavily reliant on the vehicle time savings of drivers. The estimate for daily crossings sits at about 16,000 drivers a day, and those would primarily be commuters. Marohn’s most compelling conclusion: “If we were to finance the cost of this bridge at 4% over 40 years and then charge a toll for everyone that crosses, the toll would have to be $5.74 just to pay the debt.”

Of course, commuters would quickly cry foul over such a toll. The other problem with the commuters is that many would live in Wisconsin while working in Minnesota (the Twin Cities being the closest major metropolitan area) – giving the property tax revenue to Wisconsin while utilizing Minnesota’s infrastructure and economic strengths.

I am not saying that the project has no merit whatsoever, or that Stillwater doesn’t deserve congestion relief. If the bridge was built, there is a possibility that the historic lift bridge in Stillwater would be converted into a pedestrian and bicyclist bridge, which would be an attractive element for the community. Downtown Stillwater is also a tourist attraction, and it does currently suffer a great deal of congestion, especially during rush hours when the bridge needs to be lifted. The problem is that the project cannot justify its construction cost, or its cost to the environment.

The real problem with this project is that it is a short-term solution to a problem that is plaguing America, and it is one that will ultimately contribute to the problem. Urban sprawl is an unsustainable practice for a number of reasons (here are 10 good ones), and this bridge will benefit and encourage sprawl until it becomes just another congested highway.

Our tunnel-vision-focus on the automobile and interstate highways has proved harmful to the environment, our fuel independence, and our health. The practice of living in secluded communities separated from our workplaces and other hobbies is attractive in some ways, and terribly detrimental in others. It can be made better by things like increased transit, but suburbs are designed for automobile use, making inner-suburb transit difficult and costly.

Last but certainly not least, the St. Croix River is a protected waterway under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Thus far, the transportation planners have tipped their hat to the river’s status by including mitigation packages in their proposals, but they have otherwise ignored it.

One businessman from New Richmond, WI even went as far as to dismiss the notion entirely, by claiming that the river wasn’t exactly ‘the Grand Canyon’. Maybe not, but it is environmentally important, and was ruled so by the United States Congress, which isn’t exactly trivial.

Furthermore, the business coalition is going to Congress to lobby for an exception to be made to the Rivers Act, but exceptions made to the act in the past have never reached the same level of environmental effect as this bridge.

This particular plan for the St. Croix River Crossing is the wrong project for Minnesota. It is time now to focus on smart growth and strong towns. We should be investing heavily in new infrastructure where it makes the most sense, including upgrading what we have already established, instead of creating more poorly planned highways that encouraged uncontrolled sprawl.

This proposal might be feasible in typical times using the priorities we have had for the past fifty years. Our time is not typical, however, and it is high time that we reexamine and change our priorities.


Photo credit:  Elventear, creative commons

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