Studies Recommend Replacing Historic Stillwater Bridge

Fri February 17, 2006 - Midwest Edition
Dick Rohland

After two decades of local, state and federal studies along with heavy input from local preservation and historic groups, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will soon release its final record of decision on a Supplementary Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) to give the go-ahead to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) for a $300-million bridge construction project.

The DOTs anticipate releasing the SDEIS in the next month.

The bridge will replace an aging and historic lift bridge in Stillwater, MN, located approximately 20 mi. (36 km) east of St. Paul.

It spans the St. Croix River, which partially forms the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The 1,080-ft. (324 m) lift bridge is a busy and popular river crossing.

Thousands of western Wisconsin residents cross it daily driving to their jobs in the Twin Cities region.

Thousands of Minnesota residents drive it as a gateway to Wisconsin recreational areas.

Hundreds of weekly boaters cross below while they cruise up and down the river during the spring and summer.

The importance and convenience of this bridge became readily apparent to Wisconsin commuters and Minnesota travelers after the bridge closed in the middle of last summer for some much needed repairs.

The regular commuting and traveling public faced 15-mi. detours and added frustration caused by congested traffic on the I-94 detour south of Stillwater.

Repairs done by Lunda Construction, located in Black River Falls, WI, included structural steel repairs on truss components, replacement of mechanical and electrical components of the lift span drive, replacement of the concrete deck, repair of the tender house and pedestrian railings.

Because the Stillwater Lift Bridge sits low to the surface of the river, Lunda workers removed one of seven approximately 140-ft. (42 m) spans to keep the river open for boating enthusiasts.

Torrential rains in early October brought high water and a fast current caused a 16-day delay in a much anticipated float to place the span back in place and re-open the bridge.

On the morning of the second scheduled float, a dense, early morning fog caused another, very short delay.

With no wind to hamper their movements, tug boat pilots Tom Huninghake, owner of Max ToDo Marina in Stillwater, MN, and Dennis Juvland with Lunda Construction began pushing the two barges tied together that held the span toward the gap on the bridge.

The pilots jockeyed their controls in tandem, plowed forward against the current and backed off twice before hitting the bull’s eye on their third try in just under 45 minutes, when they slowly slipped the span into place.

Approximately a week later, after a 98-day closure, MnDOT and Lunda officials re-opened the bridge, bringing much relief to its thousands of loyal users.

Constructed in 1931, the Stillwater Lift Bridge features a Parker Truss construction and is only one of two lift bridges of this type left standing in the state.

The other is the Duluth Harbor Lift Bridge located in Duluth, MN.

It also carries traffic into Wisconsin across the narrows of the Lake Superior harbor between the downtown business and tourist district of Duluth and Park Point, a popular recreational area located on a narrow, 5-mi. peninsula in northern Wisconsin.

Both bridges are on the list of National Historic Places because of their style of construction and the engineering team who designed them.

MnDOT and WisDOT own and operate the bridge.

Officials from both agencies have agreed for several decades that the lift bridge has outlived its useful life; citing severe traffic congestion, safety problems for pedestrians and vehicles and traffic delays in downtown Stillwater caused by the operation of the lift as primary arguments to construct a replacement.

Though officials from both states were anxious to move forward with bridge replacement plans, funding for the state and federal environmental and planning studies did not become available until the 1980s.

A number of issues surrounded and seriously influenced the federal and state studies and planning process.

Among them is that the Stillwater Lift Bridge is listed on the register of National Historic Places and the river it crosses, the St. Croix, is designated a “National Wild and Scenic River because of its scenic, recreational and geologic values,” according to MnDOT documents.

And the town of Stillwater with a population of 16,000 and commonly known as the “birthplace of Minnesota,” is one of the oldest towns in Minnesota.

The lift bridge has long been identified with Stillwater resulting in a fierce protection of the structure by numerous local cultural and historic groups.

The downtown business and tourist district of Stillwater sits at the bottom of 125-ft. (38 m) bluffs on the western shores of the St. Croix River.

It is a tourist and commercial/business destination for residents of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The population swells on the weekends and to some degree during the weekdays of the summer tourist season.

The narrow, main corridor of downtown Stillwater is lined with restaurants, businesses, historic buildings and antique shops.

The road carries an assortment of commuter, recreational and truck traffic.

It serves as the primary approach road to the lift bridge and is a regional connection into Wisconsin.

Traffic through Stillwater creates a hazardous mix of pedestrians and vehicles.

It is not unusual for traffic to back-up for a mile south of town and up the hill into Wisconsin.

MnDOT documents cite that the “estimated [congestion free] vehicle traffic capacity for the current river crossing and arterial approaches is 11,200 vehicles per day. The 2002 ADT volumes on the river crossing are 16,300 vehicles per day and can exceed 19,000 on a summer weekend. This leads to periodic vehicular congestion in downtown Stillwater and on the eastern and western approaches to the bridge.”

The formal studies that began in the mid-1980s to determine the best solution to Stillwater’s traffic problems culminated in the release of an Environmental Impact Statement in 1995.

It proposed a new bridge crossing the St. Croix river at an angle approximately 6,000 ft. (1,830 m) down river from the lift bridge and that the lift bridge would remain on the trunk highway system.

However, an adverse ruling by the National Park Service (NPS) in 1996 found, “the project as proposed [to build a new bridge] would have a direct and adverse affect on the outstandingly remarkable scenic and recreational values,” of the lower St. Croix River, according to MnDOT documents.

After a ruling in 1998 by the federal court system, which upheld the 1996 NPS determination, MnDOT and WisDOT officials enlisted the advice of a retired MnDOT Commissioner of Transportation to conduct an independent review of the project.

That investigation and study released in the fall of 1998 was evaluated in a Supplemental Draft EIS found a different bridge alignment to be more agreeable to all interested parties.

It also suggested turning the lift bridge into a pier, completely removing it or leaving it in place as three alternatives for the structure, according to MnDOT documents.

“However, there was no agreement at the federal level regarding these options for the lift bridge,” said Todd Clarkowski, area manager of the MnDOT Metro Division.

And it was at this point, he added, that the eventual disposition of the lift bridge itself became the final stumbling block to moving forward with a final design of the replacement bridge.

A summary of MnDOT documents show that formal discussions continued over the next several years into the next millenium with issues surrounding the future use of the lift bridge to be the top priority.

Meanwhile, Congress set aside a $5-million funding package to make the much needed repairs to the lift bridge to keep it open in the interim.

It was not until the late summer of 2002, according to Clarkowski, that the entire project received a jump start when President Bush issued an executive order to include the St. Croix River crossing in a package of seven nation-wide projects to “enhance and streamline the environmental review of transportation and infrastructure projects.”

The executive order, “helped to clarify discussions on the fate of the lift bridge and encouraged all interested parties to work toward an agreeable solution,” Clarkowski explained. “That stakeholder process also amended the original scoping document on alternative bridge designs and alignment of the replacement bridge.”

At the same time, federal agencies hired a facilitation firm called RESOLVE to lead all local, state and federal agencies to an agreeable resolution to the disposition of the lift bridge and solution to the congestion and safety problems in the Stillwater area.

Local historic and cultural groups advocating the protection of the lift bridge became a major voice in the process.

Over the past three years, more than two dozen private, public environmental, historic and cultural groups along with local, state and federal transportation agencies working together recommended that the lift bridge remain standing.

The SDEIS to be approved by the DOTs and FHWA will detail a preferred location of a new crossing, the design, the future lift bridge use and a mitigation package to offset the environmental effects of the new bridge construction, Clarkowski said.

“The new bridge alignment is perpendicular to both river banks making it a shorter crossing while still balancing any natural and cultural impacts.”

And to the satisfaction of Stillwater residents, tourists, cultural and historic groups, the lift bridge will remain standing.

It will become part of a bicycle and pedestrian trail that will loop around to its down river replacement and be connected to the bicycle trail systems in the states of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“Construction on the new bridge could begin as soon as 2012, depending on funding availability,” Clarkowski said. “Current funding levels will allow the continued project development, including final design, right of way acquisition, partial implementation of the mitigation package and potential construction of the overall project. Funding strategies are being developed to address the remaining construction funding shortfalls.”

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