A Bridge Too Far?

IN STILLWATER, THE shops along Main Street maintain their original brick facades, and business signs and awnings are strictly regulated to avoid obtrusiveness. As Minnesota's first city has gained in popularity with Twin Citians eager to taste the pastoral without venturing too far--and as some urbanites have moved to western Wisconsin for the greenery and lower taxes--traffic problems in the area have increased exponentially. What to do? After years of tussles involving the state Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the Met Council, the Minnesota-Wisconsin Boundary Area Commission, environmentalists, and townspeople, a final decision was issued last summer. But it's done little to ease the warring between the various factions.

The decade-old controversy centers around the city's 65-year-old lift bridge, a narrow, decaying edifice that can carry only 14,000 vehicles a day between Minnesota and Wisconsin. A variety of proposals have been advanced, including reinforcing the old bridge and building another one next to it. But MnDOT and the Met Council have elected to build a new bridge farther south in Oak Park Heights. And that's the least popular option among opponents of a new or revamped bridge.

Dan McGuinness, the administrative director of MWBAC, lodges a number of objections--some concerning the new bridge's capacity to meet traffic needs in the future, some revolving around the new bridge's environmental impact and the regional growth policies that underlie it. Sources from MWBAC, the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups say the new bridge, which would be a mile long and cut across the river diagonally (at a construction cost of up to $100 million), would force the relocation of homes and businesses, cut into virgin lands, and wipe out 130 acres of farmland and five wetlands. They add that the character of the St. Croix River--the only one in the state designated by Congress as a National Scenic River--would suffer as well.

Bridge opponents likewise point to a larger issue that neither MnDOT nor the Met Council seems eager to address: urban sprawl. According to statistics from the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), the Twin Cities metro region ranks third among the nation's 25 most sprawling metro areas, exceeded only by Detroit and Dallas-Forth Worth. According to both McGuinness and Lee Ronning of LSP, the bridge project would open a larger gateway into rural Wisconsin and encourage the development of agricultural lands for residential and commercial uses. "Building another road to relieve congestion is an exercise in futility. It is insane to spend this amount to suck money out of the inner city and urbanize farm lands," says Ronning.

The Met Council was created in 1967 to serve as a regional planning agency for the then-seven-county metro area. By 1990, the count had grown to 13 counties, including two in Wisconsin. Critics maintain that attempts to restrain growth by the Met Council and the governor have been largely ineffectual. While the Council touts such directives as its Regional Blueprint as a sign it's fighting the good fight against urban sprawl, local Sierra Club chapter head Tom Clark says it's all bark and no bite. "When we asked the Met Council last summer why the Blueprint plans weren't applied to the bridge project," he says, "we were told the project had been under way long before the plan was devised. End of discussion."

Although the Sierra Club is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit, there appears to be little realistic chance of interrupting the project. The funding has been procured--federal financing will pick up 80 percent of the tab--land rights are being negotiated, and in June some of the river's mussel population, which includes a couple of endangered species, will be moved upstream.

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