We’ve already covered the Stillwater Bridge debate like a North Dakota blanket both here, and on our individual blogs. So it comes as a big of a disappointment that the vote on an unprecedented violation of environmental regulations to make a new freeway past Stillwater and over a new freeway bridge into a new freeway in Wisconsin farmland is expected in the US House tomorrow.
I thought I’d add a bit more of my thoughts on it. Here are three of the reasons people usually give for why we need a new freeway past Stillwater.
#1) What They Say: We Need a New Bridge for Future Traffic
The Argument Goes Something Like This: “projected demand is expected to grow by [insert percent] by [insert year]. We need a new bridge to accommodate all this traffic…”
The Reality: Freeways produce traffic. Freeways increase demand. The more freeways we build, the more traffic we create as more and more people move farther away and drive more often and more quickly.
When this bridge was first proposed in the mid 90’s, sure traffic was growing at a quick pace. Suburbia was expanding everywhere, and the Twin Cities was sprawling out to encompass all kinds of Western Wisconsin.
Since then, however, two big things have happened. First, the housing market and the economy collapsed big time. Now, there are foreclosed homes all over the suburban ring of the twin cities. Exurban areas have been hit particularly hard.
Second, the gas price is much higher. Michelle Bachmann seems to think that $2 gas is just around the corner. Barring an epic global economic disaster, she’s very wrong. On the contrary, $5 gas is just around the corner.
2) What They Say: The Current Bridge is Old and Falling Down
The argument goes something like this: The current bridge is from 1931! It’s really really old! It’s historic, like the Amish or something. We need a new shiny bridge. Also, it lifts up and down, and people have to wait for boats.
The Reality: As some of my friends here have pointed out, there are many countries all around the world where bridges far older than this one have been maintained and used for a long time. There’s a bridge in Iran that was built by the Sassanid’s (600 AD) that people were driving on until two years ago. (Here’s an example of a “bridge” that’s still being used, even though it was built in 1300 BC.) The oldest bridge still in use in the US is in Philadelphia, and it was built in 1687. Nobody would advocate replacing the stone arch bridge just because it was old, would they?
I like the Stillwater bridge as is, but then again I am also a big fan of walking, ‘slow food’, and things like the ‘idler’ movement. So what if the bridge lifts up and down. Slow down and enjoy your life a bit more. If you’re in a hurry, the I-94 bridge is only six miles away.
3) What They Say: There is Too Much Congestion in Downtown Stillwater
The Argument Goes Something Like This: Traffic is really backed up in downtown Stillwater! Cars are bumper to bumper. They sit there stuck in traffic. Anyone who has lived in Stillwater knows how bad it is. We need to do something!
The Reality: This one is semi-vaguely convincing, but I’m not really sure that a ‘bypass’ around Stillwater will be the best thing for the town in the long run. Lots of small towns used to have congestion in their downtowns, as old US or state highways ran right through the center. When many of those towns built bypasses, almost all of the economic activity also bypassed the downtown. Big new parking lot box stores opened up on the edge of the city by the new freeway, and the stores downtown inevitably closed.
Stillwater may be a different case, because it’s a tourist haven filled with antique stores. But you have to wonder how much of the downtown Stillwater economy will be impacted by a big new freeway bypassing the city completely. It strikes me that the best, cutest, and most charming river towns are the ones (like Alma, WI) where the main road goes right straight down the old main street. Anyone who’s ever walked around the deserted streets of downtown Hastings knows what can happen once auto traffic completely abandons an old main drag.
Why the Stillwater Bridge will it pass anyway? (barring a McCollum / Tea Party miracle)
1) Short Term Economic Impact
As i’ve written elsewhere, the short term impact of the bridge is jobs for local construction firms and contractors. That’s important to many of the local interests, and local politicains almost typically vote for any kind of ‘project’ or ‘deal’ on this basis alone, regardless of the public policy impacts.
2) Long Term Development Deals
Granted, I haven’t done research on this by looking into property ownership and land sales. But, this bridge has been expected for a long time. That means that all the farm land on the Wisconsin side of the Hudson River, land that is currently corn fields and very sparsely settled, will be worth a fortune once the new freeway is constructed. Many “smart” and well-connected people have bought this land (or are sitting on it), waiting to cash in once the freeway construction is complete.
This Bridge Represents a Failure of Vision
These two reasons alone mean that the bridge will likely pass. Very few local politicans in MN or WI have come out against the bridge. There is simply too much institutional inertia pushing for it.
But to me, this represents a serious lack of vision for our government. Government is changing, like it or not. Budget deficits have happen nearly every year for a long time at nearly every level (but especially city and state). We need to think more carefully about how to spend our investment dollars, and make sure that they’ll be put into projects that will be wise in the long-term.
As Chuck has pointed out, the money we’ll be spending on the Stillwater bridge could repair every bridge in the state. And in case you have forgotten 2007, a few of our bridges may need a new gusset plate or two.
The problem is, of course, that federal highway money is going to pay for the lion’s share of the Stillwater project. This means that, from the perspective of state and local politicians, the bridge looks like “free money.” Federal dollars fund our federal interstates, and this situation incentivizes the construction of new projects instead of helping pay for the maintenances of already existing roads. So, as long as current highway funding structure is set up this way, nothing will change. And I’m not very optimistic about stopping this large bridge to nowhere.