The Stillwater Bridge Story: Part Two

When a Final Design Isn’t

This is Part Two of a series on the new Stillwater Bridge, now officially known as the St. Croix Crossing. Part One dealt with 1950s era mutterings up to the 1995 selection of a preferred alternative. But as everyone knows there was plenty of opposition. Although final design work (costing $1 Million) and all the right-of-way was acquired, in June 1996 environmental groups sued the federal government to stop the bridge, and after an unfavorable ruling was finalized in April, 1998, bridge supporters worked to find an alternate that would still handle the expected traffic while satisfying more (if not all) of the bridge opponents. Thus entered retired Mn/DOT commissioner Richard Braun (the person the MN 610 Braun Bridge is named after) as a facilitator.

Rendering of the 1995 design from the scenic overlook.

Rendering of the 1995 design from the scenic overlook.


The Braun Process

The Braun process looked at several locations and types, and proposed a steel deck-arch bridge halfway between the old bridge and the 1995 EIS preferred site.  Putting the bridge here would have required a substantially shorter bridge, and less disruption to the bluffs on the Wisconsin side due to an existing ravine, and allowed Oak Park Heights to reclaim the “ghost neighborhood” that had been cleared for the 1995 FEIS proposal. The disadvantage would be it required an “S”-curve on the Minnesota side and a complicated interchange with MN 95 and created more impacts to the parks and bluffs south of downtown. Despite these drawbacks, myself, the city of Stillwater, and most bridge supporters would have accepted a “2nd Braun Bridge” if it had come down to building it vs building nothing or building at the existing location.

The three locations studied by Braun compared to the 1995 FEIS preferred alternative

The three locations studied by Braun compared to the 1995 FEIS preferred alternative

Braun Alternative “C” became known formally if inappropriately known  as the “Consensus Proposal”, and moved forward with a February 1999 amendment to the original scoping document, a March 2000 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and a December 2000 “Section 7(a)” approval by the National Park Service. A 2001 Supplemental Draft EIS was prepared by never released due to the suspension of the project in Jan 2001. Meanwhile the original 1996 lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice on the grounds that it referred to an alternative that was no longer being considered. Whatever the merits of the Braun proposal, ultimately it was doomed because satisfying “more” people was not satisfying “enough”.

The Smith Ave High Bridge, the most notable steel deck truss bridge and one possibility what the Braun proposal could have looked like.

The Smith Ave High Bridge, the most notable steel deck truss bridge and one possibility what the Braun proposal could have looked like.

Braun Proposal Rendering.

Braun Proposal Rendering.

The only rendering of the Braun proposal I could find is really terrible, but I include it to give a sense of scale relative to the location. For a better idea of what it might look like there is the Sellwood bridge, currently under construction in Oregon, and the Smith Ave High Bridge;  two weathered steel deck-arch bridges. The height of the Stillwater Bridge would have been between the two, and wider than both.

Due to lack of unanimous support, and ongoing issues about what to do about the old bridge and how to pay for it, the process ground to a halt even before an official lawsuit was even filed, and work was officially suspended on Jan 12, 2001. However in 2001 and then again in 2002 the Minnesota legislature mandated Mn/DOT not remove it from the state transportation improvement program. Then in 2002 the process was restarted with putting all parties together and hoping they could agree, the Stakeholder’s Process.

The “3-Architects” Plan

Meanwhile, in 2000 three architects in  Stillwater, under the name “Friends of the St. Croix”, proposed an alternate to the Braun plan, where a new two lane, 40 mph eastbound bridge would be built, and the existing lift bridge converted to westbound traffic. They called it the “Citizens Common Sense Plan”, but I refer to it as the 3-Architects Plan as that is how official documents refer to it as. It was similar to an earlier option, and Mn/DOT rejected it for the same reasons: the impact of a 60 foot high bridge near the downtown, that even with removing parking from Main Street there were questions about the capacity of downtown streets, and the required four-lane divided approach road and ramp to the bridge was contrary to the city goal of new parkland extending south from downtown. In one of the goofiest proposals I’ve ever heard, at one of the public meetings I attended one of the environmentalist group representatives suggested both bridges could be reversible so the peak traffic would use the new bridge in both the AM and PM.

Stakeholder Group and the Final Location

The Stakeholders met from 2003 to 2006, culminating in the 2006 Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement. Since the Braun alignment didn’t appease opponents, the location reverted to the more logical extension of MN 36 directly across the river. In the intervening years a new bridge type had been developed, the extradosed bridge. It seemed like a natural fit for this situation, since the desire since the beginning of the process and still was to minimize the number of river piers while avoiding any overhead structure that could be seen out of the valley (although there was a minority voice that felt that a dramatic signature bridge would not inappropriate and the opportunity to build such was being wasted). Derived from the French word extradossé, (exterior curve of an arch), an extradosed bridge is basically a hybrid of a girder bridge and a cable stayed bridge. They require fewer bridge piers for a given span due to the cables providing supplemental compression of the bridge segments. Enough compression can overcome the force of gravity, similar to holding a big stack of books against a wall.

Finally, with the stakeholders proposal came dropping the idea of a freeway east of Stillwater Blvd. The primary reason was the city of Oak Park Heights, which (not without justification) had been concerned and  even stubborn throughout the whole project,  didn’t want to lose the tax base of the highway oriented businesses. But a secondary reason was that even to supporters it was obvious costs were getting out of control due to years of construction inflation, increasingly elaborate structure designs, and more and more mitigation.

The Memorandum of Understanding

Along with the Stakeholders group, the Memorandum of Understanding formalized the mitigation due to the inpacts on environmental and historic resources. The actual document is 41 pages and includes such minute details as requiring highway exit signs say “Downtown Stillwater”, so to summarize the key points:

1) The old bridge would be saved with an $3 million endowment for maintenance, and become part of what’s now known as the “Loop Trail”, for $7 million. Preservationists insisted it stay, environmentalists insisted on no net increase in transportation corridors across the river. (Why they couldn’t just close a minor two lane township bridge someplace in northern Wisconsin I don’t know). Eventually they decided that a bicycle bridge wasn’t a “transportation corridor” and relented on the old bridge staying.

2) Several man-made structures would be removed; the Terra Terminal building (which Stillwater had previously planned to renovate a a picnic shelter or visitors center), the “Buckhorn” sign on the Wisconsin side, and the Xcel Energy barge terminal, which whether or not you like concrete bridges has to be far uglier.

3) The Shoddy Mill buildings, a pair of old industrial buildings in the path of the new highway in Oak Park Heights, would be moved. This wound up costing over $1 million and questions were raised even by preservationists about whether it was worth it, but it was part of the deal so it happened. They wound up at the site of the Terra Terminal building, to be used somehow as part of the new park.

4) $2.5 Million to buy fee title, development rights, or conservation easements on blufflands.

5) Restoration of the scenic overlook along Lookout trail, built before the highway was relocated, but still maintained by Mn/DOT.

The Xcel Barge unloading terminal, probably one of the ugliest things mankind has built.

The Xcel Barge unloading terminal, probably one of the ugliest things mankind has built.


The “Sensible Bridge”

As a counter-proposal, the Sensible Bridge surfaced. The major difference between this and previous “low and slow” designs was a three lane bridge with the center lane reversible, rather than a two lane bridge with the old bridge kept for westbound traffic   Originally the new freeway would have ended at a roundabout leading to the bridge and downtown, however later the group acknowledged that an interchange would be necessary in order to handle traffic. The suggestion was made that the bridge be tolled to repress demand.

Mn/DOTs response was similar to their reaction to the first such proposal. In addition to expressing doubts that it would be any cheaper due to having to restart the design and environmental process and resultant years of construction inflation, they note that the single lane in the “reverse” direction would be inadequate for traffic near the end of the planning horizon. Finally, there was insufficient space for storm-water ponds and a protected mussel habitat on the Wisconsin side. Stillwater’s mayor, Ken Harycki, was another blistering critic, stating the bridge would be “functionally obsolete upon opening”, and “would obliterate Stillwater’s views from downtown”. My own thoughts add that a three lane undivided road connecting two freeways seems like an enormous safety issue.

The group’s web page and Facebook site are now defunct, but quite a few resources show Stakeholders Option E3, which while not the actual proposal have been similar other than and interchange on the Minnesota site and three lanes.

Ongoing Litigation and the “Final Answer”

Ultimately though the Stakeholder group did nothing to solve the underlying issue: any bridge that would be adequate for projected future traffic would not be acceptable to environmentalists, and in turn any bridge that would be acceptable to environmentalists would not handle projected traffic. So the pushing and shoving continued.  As Rep. Ron Kind, (D-Wi) put it, “Let’s build one that’s worthy of the projected growth of the region so that we’re not revisiting this 10, or 15, or 20 years down the road and kicking ourselves that we did not make it as big as it should be.”

The National Park Service approved the design in 2005, but the environmentalists, having not gotten their way while they were part of the Stakeholder’s process, filed yet another lawsuit to stop the project, based on allegations that the NPS failed to follow it’s own guidelines in approving the design, and in Mar 2010 a federal judge agreed.  Since compromises that could still handle the projected traffic had failed, and litigation had gone against them, ultimately what should have been a local project rather than the national circus it turned out to be had to be taken to the highest level, with congressional bills to allow it passing both houses by huge majorities and President Obama signing it on Mar 14, 2012, finally ending 60 years of plans, speculation, and uncertainty.

Part 3 will continue with the refinements to the new design, and some loose ends and miscellaneous trivia.

About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.