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Building history, behind the scenes of St. Croix Crossing

Howard LaVenture1 / 2
John Soderberg2 / 2

One of the initial curiosities my wife and I experienced after moving to New Richmond 11 years ago was the beautiful stretch of four-lane highway known as Highway 64. It sweeps along west to the St. Croix River where it periodically slows to a schedule-killing crawl as it collapses down to two lanes before crossing the historically significant, but curious, not in a good way, rust covered Stillwater Lift Bridge. We learned that apparently we were not the first people to wonder how the four lanes came to be and how and when they might meet up with their equal in a new bridge to expedite our trip across the river. We learned that the roller coaster of a debate over building a new bridge had grown to legendary proportions over the preceding decades headlined by political giants like former Vice President Walter Mondale, Wisconsin Statesman Gaylord Nelson, and more recently, Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken.

Turns out, two giants of a more local flavor, New Richmond's own John Soderberg and Houlton's Howard LaVenture played significant roles in the battle to build the new bridge.

Both Soderberg and LaVenture were members of the 28-person federally mediated stakeholders coalition, which was responsible for forging the many compromises it took to make the new bridge a reality. You might characterize Soderberg as a civic minded superhero and LaVenture as more of a practical pit bull. The coalition did its work over a roughly three-year period between 2003 and 2006. However, both Soderberg and LaVenture had been advocating for a new bridge for many years before the 2003 coalition came into being.

Soderberg's reputation as a civic-minded community leader began when he organized a grassroots effort to clean up the Willow River.

"I have been doing things with water in Wisconsin for a long time. I had taken on an effort to clean up the Willow River many years before. The State of Wisconsin ended up asking me to chair some of the clean water activities in this part of the state. So I kind of slipped into the clean water thing, but I also took on the bridge," said Soderberg.

His long-running dedication to clean water caught the eye of politicians in Madison and they enlisted his help with the bridge in St. Croix County.

"I got sick and tired of hearing, 'You know, somebody ought to really get that bridge built over here.' I would say, 'What do you mean somebody. Maybe it's you that should do it.' Eventually I took my own advice," said Soderberg.

Soderberg's passion for clean water made him a good match for the bridge project. In 1996 his advocacy activities on behalf of a new bridge generated a call from some folks in Minnesota.

"The State of Minnesota called me up. They could see what I was doing over here and they asked, 'Would you mind if we joined in with you?' I said, 'No, I wouldn't mind. We should do it together. Between the two of us, we should be able to get this done.' We had finally formed an alliance between the two states. It all started to come together. But it wasn't easy," recalled Soderberg.

In 2001, the Bush administration included the St. Croix River Bridge on a list of projects subject to a "streamlined" environmental review process that coincided with the formation of the federally mediated stakeholders coalition. Soderberg was chosen to represent New Richmond.

"The U.S. Department of Transportation met and said they would pick up the bill to bring all these different people together. We had people from everywhere even over seas who were interested. They had been sending in pictures of bridges with estimates of how much it would cost to build them. It was a big brainstorming session. But they couldn't all be part of the mediation process in person, so it ended up being just the 28 people on the coalition," said Soderberg.

Looking back, Soderberg thought the biggest problem boiled down to communication.

"I would say the biggest problem was the idea that a lot of people had in their own minds that

the people in Stillwater, the government of Stillwater, wouldn't want the bridge. And just the opposite was true. When we started having community meetings on both sides of the river with stakeholders face-to-face, we found out they wanted the bridge too. When people learned that they could save 15-20 minutes on their trip with a new bridge, they would say, 'You mean we don't have to go through Stillwater?' and I would say, 'That's what this is all about,' said Soderberg.

LaVenture always believed the bridge was a good idea. He remembers fighting for it as far back as 1985. LaVenture represented Houlton on the 2003 stakeholders coalition, a community dead center in the path of the new bridge.

"I remember all the work we put in to come up with the Buckhorn site. That site was kind of custom made for the new bridge. It had a large ravine that could have saved on some of the construction costs. We wouldn't have had to do as much construction cutting into the bluffs or purchasing the additional land that we had to purchase for the final site," said LaVenture.

The original Buckhorn site, B1, was coined for the Buckhorn Supper Club built by George and Gladys Holcombe in 1937. The Holcombes sold their property to Minnesota realtor Ed Johnson for roughly $165,000. The Buckhorn site was so promising, LaVenture remembers the State of Wisconsin paying $2 million for it.

"The state just took that as an opportunity to go and buy the property," said LaVenture.

That purchase that still doesn't sit well with LaVenture today who has seen the overall price for the project grow from $120 million in 1995 to more than $600 million today.

"For the location (Wisconsin side) where the bridge is now, the state had to buy out two houses for approximately a million a piece. And at the Buckhorn site, it had been subdivided into four parcels for development before they bought it, so they paid roughly $500,00 per lot and they still own it. That's roughly $2 million worth of land the state really didn't need to purchase. It's not producing any tax revenue. I'm surprised they haven't put it on the market and sold it," said LaVenture.

When LaVenture thinks back on the fight before the formation of 2003 federal coalition, names like Mat Hollinshead, the Sierra Club and U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery stand out.

"Twice lawsuits by the Sierra Club stopped the bridge. From what I remember, I think Hollinshead lived in the area. He might have owned some land that would have been affected by the bridge. He did a good job for the Sierra Club. I remember when Judge Montgomery ruled against the bridge the second time. That kind of took the fight out of everyone for while," said LaVenture.

Even though U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled in favor of the Sierra Club in her 1998 decision, momentum was beginning to shift. LaVenture credits some of that shift to money.

LaVenture saw the environmental arguments as the biggest obstacle to building the bridge.

"We were pretty much dictated to, where the NPS would accept the location (for the bridge), but we ended up supporting it," said LaVenture.

The Sierra Club, which twice defeated the bridge with the help of the National Park Service (NPS), had argued that the bridge would negatively impact the river and its ecology, a river made pristine by the its designation as a National Wild and Scenic River in 1968.

That all changed with the formation of the 2003 coalition. After three years of monthly meetings amongst the stakeholders and multiple compromises, they produced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). That MOU allowed LaVenture, Soderberg and their colleagues to begin putting pressure on Congressional leaders to move the bridge project along.

"After three years, we produced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). That was really a big step," said Soderberg.

"Without the second coalition, we wouldn't have a bridge yet. It was a lot of work, but it was important," said LaVenture

"We started to put pressure on the politicians in Washington DC. I must say, that the politicians from both Minnesota and Wisconsin were very good, they really got behind it because they could see a good thing coming," said Soderberg.

That consistent pressure produced a bill to exempt the bridge from the laws governing the use of the river under the 1968 National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar in the U.S. Senate and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the bill. The Congress passed the bill in 2012 and the bridge was on its way to becoming a reality.

One of important ideas to come out of the 2003 coalition was the money Laventure was referring to, mitigation funds. The Department of Transportation allocated more than $40 million to be distributed up and down both shorelines.

"I believe the mitigation funds played a part. We didn't have anything to do with deciding the amount, just the idea. I'm not sure I would call that an accomplishment, maybe more like the cost of doing business," said LaVenture.

The funds are being used to resolve a variety of issues ranging from building a 4.7-mile bike and trail system called the St. Croix River Crossing Loop Trail, to moving three different species of mussels out of danger. Actions like the moving of the mussels and other considerations like keeping the bridge towers at or below the bluffs on the Wisconsin side and making the bridge an earth tone to help it blend in with the surrounding landscape was not enough to dissuade the NPS from its opinion that the new bridge would negatively impact the scenic character and recreational enjoyment of the river. However, the NPS conceded the bridge would not adversely affect the free-flowing condition of the river.

"I spent 21 years on this project. I went to Washington I don't know how many times," said Soderberg.

Despite all the hard work and years of setbacks, Laventure never gave up.

"I'd do it again," said LaVenture.

LaVenture has not yet visited the result of all his hard work but he plans to be there on Aug. 2 for the ribbon cutting.

Soderberg has made the trip.

"It's a beautiful sight. It's got a pedestrian and bicycle walk way. I went out there, in fact, I almost broke down and cried because I was so happy with it. I stood there in the middle of the bridge and looked north up the river and watched the water coming down. It's the most beautiful scene I've ever had."