Op-Eds

Originally printed in the Chippewa Herald, January 25th, 2012.

If you pay attention to the news from Washington, D.C., you might believe that Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on anything. But I went to Washington willing to work with anyone who will acknowledge a problem and help develop real solutions. A case in point is the bipartisan agreement that has now been reached on replacing the Stillwater Lift Bridge.

Traveling around western Wisconsin, the need for a new bridge crossing over the St. Croix River is obvious. The current bridge has been a problem for decades. It is 80 years old, and was rated ‘structurally deficient’ in 2008. The Interstate 35W bridge, which collapsed in Minnesota in 2007, received a considerably higher rating than the Stillwater Lift Bridge.

The lift bridge was never intended to carry the level of traffic that it currently does. The Twin Cities have seen enormous growth since 1930 — as has the entire region. A bridge that was sufficient 80 years ago is simply inadequate now. All too often, drivers are caught in backups that stretch for miles. This has created serious safety concerns, as motorists cut corners and look for ways to cross the river more quickly.

The outdated bridge poses more than just a safety concern. This inadequate infrastructure imposes limits on economic growth in the region. When workers and commerce can’t move quickly and efficiently, jobs, investment, and growth go elsewhere. This has become a serious problem for people on both sides of the St. Croix River.

My experience in manufacturing and business has also taught me how economic development can positively affect an area when a major project is initiated. The economic impact of a new bridge on the local communities — both during construction and after — will be decidedly positive.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, more than 6,000 full-time workers will be required during peak construction. In addition, this upgrade of an important element of regional infrastructure will help facilitate economic development for decades.

It has been 30 years since the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota began working with the Department of Transportation to determine a way to replace the bridge. It has been nearly 10 years since a group of 27 stakeholders started meeting to try to develop a concrete plan.

And it’s been sixyears since those stakeholders came together in near unanimity on a way forward: the existing bridge would be retained for pedestrian and bicycle crossings, while a new one was built for vehicles. That bridge would be built with a combination of state and federal money — funds that have already been provided. With clear direction and buy-in from those most affected, it seemed only a matter of time before the project was under way.

Since then, the biggest obstacle has been federal regulations that prevented a new bridge from being built. The well-intentioned Wild and Scenic Rivers Act effectively blocked any action. Instead of seeking a balance between economic development and environmental protection, some interest groups have resolutely stood in the way of a compromise.

Despite this opposition, Wisconsin and Minnesota members of Congress from both parties worked together to break the logjam. In November, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the St. Croix River Crossing Project Authorization Act. Both Congressional delegations then met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to express support for the legislation. The bill grants an exemption that allows the crossing to be built with safeguards to ensure it has a minimal impact on the environment. The bill was approved by the Senate Monday.

Passage of this legislation is an important bipartisan achievement of the Congressional delegations of Wisconsin and Minnesota. It would not have been possible without the hard work of bill sponsor Sen. Amy Klobuchar — who has been a real leader on this issue — as well as myself, Sen. Franken and Sen. Kohl.

Hopefully the House — with the strong leadership of Reps. Bachmann, Cravaack, Duffy and Kind — will soon pass the bill and deliver a common-sense win for the entire region.

Mr. Johnson is a Republican senator from Wisconsin.

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