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Judge puts stop to Stillwater bridge plan

An artist's conception of the proposed bridge.

This was not the news supporters of a new river crossing at Stillwater wanted to hear.

U.S District Judge Michael Davis on Thursday issued an opinion to stop the proposed new bridge over the St. Croix River. after considering the matter since Sept. 14, 2009.

"I think it's a very disappointing decision," said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind on Thursday afternoon. He added he's already been on the telephone with area leaders about the ruling and he's committed to working with local authorities to push the bridge plan forward.

"We're going to work very hard to fix this," he said. "Every year we delay this, the price tag for the bridge gets higher and higher."

He said anyone who has driven on the bridge recently realizes that it needs to be replaced.

In his opinion, Davis agreed with the Sierra Club, which brought the lawsuit, noting the construction plans violate the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Davis noted the NPS's previous position in 1996 that a new bridge would dramatically impact the river's scenic status was ignored when the bridge was eventually approved.

The park service and the U.S. Secretary of Interior violated the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Davis claimed, when the bridge was given the green light to proceed. The St. Croix River was designated a wild and scenic river in 1964, giving it special protections.

Kind said he was surprised at the decision, noting that officials went through a thorough process that attempted to address all the concerns. When the many stakeholders, who previously disagreed about certain aspects of the bridge plan, signed off on the project, Kind said he thought the path was clear for eventual construction.

"What the ruling says is the National Park Service is not allowed to change its mind," Kind said, "which is ridiculous."

Wisconsin and Minnesota transportation officials, legislators and business leaders had hoped that construction of the new bridge could begin no later than 2013. Construction of the bridge was expected to take about three years.

The cost of the bridge was previously estimated at about $670 million.

The Sierra Club officials say they've proposed viable alternatives to the present plan, like constructing a new bridge near the site of the current bridge, but neither state has considered them.

Sierra Club representatives say they aren't necessarily opposed to a new bridge, just the bridge as it is currently designed.

The proposed bridge was be built a mile south of downtown Stillwater, near the intersection of Highway 36 and Highway 95 in Oak Park Heights. The bridge would span the St. Croix and end in Houlton.

It would span about 3,000 feet, which would nearly triple the 1,050-foot length of the 1931 historic lift bridge. Two lanes of traffic would travel in each direction.

Under the current plan, the downtown Stillwater lift bridge, a registered historic landmark, was to be turned into a pedestrian path after the completion of the proposed bridge. A path along the proposed bridge would connect with the lift bridge path, creating a loop trail.