It’s very expensive

Strong Towns on the Stillwater Bridge.

Let’s stipulate for the sake of this conversation that the new St. Croix bridge is a worthy project (it’s not, but let’s pretend that it is). At a time when Americans are being forced to make some really difficult financial decisions, particularly about infrastructure spending, the reason why this project is likely to proceed while 1,100+ of our deficient bridges receive little funding is important to understand. Understanding that reason will illuminate why we are in such a dire financial situation, why our infrastructure is failing and why nothing we are likely to do will make the problem better.

The St. Croix bridge is a very expensive project. It is projected to cost more than the estimate for fixing ALL of the 1,149 structurally deficient bridges in Minnesota.

Without knowing the numbers, it would be fair to assume that the St. Croix bridge is really critical in terms of traffic volume. Not so. The bridge is projected to carry 16,000 vehicles per day. For comparision, Minnesota’s 1,149 structurally deficient bridges carry a combined 2.4 million vehicles per day.

This seems insane, and it is. Why would a state full of rational people spend $670 million on one bridge to carry 16,000 cars when we already have 1,149 bridges carrying over 2.4 million cars that are in a state of critical disrepair? Why would we not spend the money first on maintaining the bridges that we have? What business do we have adding more bridges to the inventory when we do not have the resources to maintain our existing ones?

Stillwater Bridge forum on 9/9

The Sensible Bridge Coalition State and Local Policy Program and the Citizens League are sponsoring a forum hosted by Jim Oberstar to discuss the various plans.

The Stillwater Bridge: What are the Issues?

A forum hosted by Jim Oberstar

Friday, September 9
1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Cowles Auditorium
Humphrey Center
301 19th Avenue S.
Minneapolis, MN 55455

For over 20 years, the replacement of the Stillwater Lift Bridge connecting Wisconsin and Minnesota over the St. Croix River has been a contentious issue. Federal, state, and local agencies and policy leaders have weighed in on whether and how the historic lift bridge should be replaced to accommodate current and future traffic demand.

Jim Oberstar, former congressman and chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will host a forum to discuss issues surrounding the proposed Stillwater Bridge crossing the St. Croix River.  A panel of representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, National Park Service, local interests, and environmental perspectives will discuss current plans for replacing the bridge and the public policy and funding issues surrounding these plans. The forum will include a participant discussion led by Oberstar.

There is no cost to attend this event, but online registration is requested. For more information or to register, please visit the event web page.

This event is sponsored by the State and Local Policy Program at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, with the Citizens League.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 6)

The New York Times is highlighting the proposed freeway-style Stillwater bridge in their Room for Debate series.  They are calling it “Bachmann’s Bridge”, even though Senator Al Franken and Governor Dayton both support it.  I suppose since she is now a Republican front-runner she gets the cheers/jeers.

Former Senator Mondale sums things up:

At $700 million, this bridge, the largest and most expensive in Minnesota history, would carry about 18,000 vehicles a day. By comparison, the Interstate-35 bridge in Minneapolis carries more than 10 times the number of vehicles and was a fraction of the cost to build. This bridge would consume nearly all of the available financing in Minnesota to build or repair bridges, leaving almost 1,200 structurally deficient bridges wanting for funds. Both states have endorsed this bridge during Minnesota’s well-publicized state budget shutdown, and without investigating less harmful, less expensive and more sensible alternatives that respect the river, address commuters’ needs, and cost hundreds of millions less to the taxpayer.

Congress should employ its common sense.

I realize my Stillwater bridge series is missing a post on the “Sensible Stillwater Bridge” organization that has started up.  Basically, they are advocating for a lower, slower bridge with three lanes instead of four.  It would supposedly save 60% of the cost of the “boondoggle” bridge.  They don’t have a proper website, but you can see renderings of their proposal on their facebook page.  They also have a twitter account.

I asked the Sensible Bridge Partnership about tolling, and for now, they don’t seem to have an opinion.  I think tolling should be part of any “sensible” plan for a new bridge, and could even be a selling point to skeptical Minnesotans.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 5)

Minnpost interviewed Representative Betty McCollum (whose district does not include the Stillwater bridge).  She has strong feelings about the proposed bridge.

MinnPost: You’ve long been against the plans for a big freeway-style bridge plans south of Stillwater. Is cost your major concern?

Rep. Betty McCollum: Cost should be every Minnesota taxpayer’s concern. Did you know the proposed St. Croix mega-bridge would be the most expensive bridge ever built in Minnesota? This project will cost $700 million and serve 18,000 vehicles the day it opens. Compare that to the $390 million price tag for building BOTH the new Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis and the Lafayette Bridge under construction in downtown St. Paul. The I-35W and Lafayette bridges are used by nearly 300,000 Minnesotans every day.

Based on the facts, the mega-bridge fails every common-sense test of taxpayer value. The mega-bridge wastes taxpayer money, especially when smaller, less-expensive options are available. Stillwater needs and deserves a new bridge, but a $700 million mega-bridge only six miles from the I-94 crossing is both excessive and irresponsible.

MinnPost: How about the environmental concerns?

McCollum: The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is the law of the land. It should be respected, not tampered with, as is being proposed in both the House and Senate legislation. I believe the Stillwater Lift Bridge can be replaced in a way that’s compatible with the letter and spirit of the law. The St. Croix is the only river in Minnesota protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The current design has been litigated and delayed for years and years because it violates the law.

Beyond Minnesota, the mega-bridge sets a new, dangerously low standard that would threaten every mile of every protected river in the national Wild and Scenic River system.

MinnPost: You’ve said that a new bridge would benefit Wisconsin more than Minnesota. How does that work?

McCollum: The estimates I’ve seen show 75 percent of the bridge traffic would be from Wisconsin, while Minnesota taxpayers pay the majority of the costs.

MinnPost: Would a new bridge feed urban sprawl, too?

McCollum: The proposed four-lane, freeway-style mega-bridge is designed to accelerate urban sprawl. But growth at the edges of the metro has come to a screeching halt because of the housing slump and high gas prices. So the bridge is not only poor urban planning, but it’s also out of sync with today’s economic realities. A smaller, appropriately scaled bridge can meet the transportation needs of both Minnesota and Wisconsin residents, regardless of population growth in St. Croix County.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 4)

Yet another view on the proposed Stillwater bridge to Wisconsin.  This time from Micky Cook, a Stillwater city council member in the Pioneer Press.

There are roughly 18,000 commuters who use the Stillwater lift bridge during rush hours on weekdays. The cost of the new bridge is $668 million. Rebuilding the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis cost less than half that amount, $261 million. How can we justify such an outrageous expense in this economy to accommodate a Wisconsin commuter corridor? According to MnDOT, 75 percent of weekday trips are commuters coming from Wisconsin. There already is a major freeway bridge roughly five miles south of the proposed site on Interstate 94 that connects to a network of highways in Wisconsin.

We all know the litany of economic ills we face. Gas prices are approaching an all-time high, a record number of homes are in foreclosure, people have lost their jobs and there is no more local government aid to help municipalities maintain services. The price tag on this project warrants serious discussion. If we do have that kind of money, shouldn’t we use it to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of existing bridges and roads?

Isn’t this really just another development story? The current contingent pushing hard for a new bridge argues it is for the greatest possible good. We need to ask for whom and at what cost?

Ms. Cook also proposes some alternative solutions to deal with traffic in the area caused by commuters.

What about metering traffic lights or negotiating with the Coast Guard for a change in the lift bridge schedule to reduce the number of times the bridge is lifted during peak times? We could post the lift schedule and ask MnDOT to set up a traffic notice at the I-694 and I-494 interchange off of Highway 36, alerting drivers of bridge delays and redirecting them to alternate routes. We could lobby to make the lift bridge one-way heading west in the morning and eastbound for the afternoon commute. Big employers in the area could provide shuttle services and offer incentives for Wisconsin employees to use it from a Park & Ride on the other side of the river. Stillwater could use reserve officers to direct traffic during critical commute times and on busy summer weekends.

I’m sure there are other traffic control measures that could be implemented. Not all solutions have to cost outrageous sums of money. But it’s not as exciting as building a big new shiny bridge. And it goes without saying, if the lift bridge poses a real safety risk, it should be shut down immediately.

A very cheap traffic control measure not mentioned would be closing the lift bridge to car traffic.  I don’t believe this would have much ill effect on Stillwater, and would quickly solve traffic problems caused by commuters (I think they’d still have a lot of traffic, which is a good thing for downtown).

P.S. I really don’t intend for this blog to be all Stillwater bridge, all the time, I promise.  Things have just been a little busy lately.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 3)

Stillwater Bridge "Low-Slow" Alternative Drawing

Writing for Minnpost, Steve Berg points out that most politicians seem to view the Stillwater bridge as a freeway-style-bridge versus no freeway-style-bridge proposition, even though there may be another alternative.

What might this new bridge look like?

As I wrote here on March 4, a new bridge should relieve Stillwater’s summertime traffic problems without inducing an excessive amount of sprawl development on the Wisconsin side of the river. Obviously, its design should not intrude on the historic and natural quality of the valley.

That means a so-called “low, slow” solution (PDF) — a bridge that wouldn’t span the river from bluff top to bluff top but drop down to a level more in scale with the existing Lift Bridge. Speeds (and noise) should be kept to a minimum. Engineers might consider a three-lane design that would allow east-west flexibility depending on traffic flow. The bridge should be dynamically tolled as a way to fairly shift costs to users and to help manage traffic buildup in the area.

The park service, in rejecting the freeway-style bridge, seemed almost to invite such a design while rejecting outright the freeway-style bridge that MnDOT proposed.

Note that Berg calls for “dynamic tolling” to shift the cost to users, manage traffic and assumedly reduce sprawl (not subsidize low-density development in Wisconsin).  Other expert sources say a 4-lane bridge would not have enough demand to pay the tolls required to fund it, so I assume demand from a slower, narrower span would not generate enough in tolls to pay the cost.  Perhaps this is why MNDOT has floated the idea of a $3 toll, which would only cover half of the construction cost (but would cover maintenance) of the bigger bridge.

On the proposed Stillwater bridge (part 2)

Alex, author of Getting Around Minneapolis, has posted an excellent letter he wrote to his representatives and Governor Dayton about the proposed Stillwater bridge.

Dear Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Governor Dayton,

I’m writing to urge you not to support a new bridge across the St. Croix River near Stillwater.  A new bridge would hugely encourage sprawl, which damages the environmentrequires costly infrastructure such as sewers and roads, and fosters unhealthy automobile-dependent lifestyles.  Furthermore, a new bridge is not necessary, since the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south of Stillwater has a great deal of excess capacity.

Continue reading

On the proposed Stillwater bridge

David Levinson (The Transportationist) on the proposed Stillwater bridge to Wisconsin:

I think building a four lane bridge to replace a two lane bridge does not fully count as “preservation”, but rather as “expansion”. Given the state of the network, and the need to give priority to preservation, a four lane bridge violates that principal. As to whether a four lane bridge passes a B/C test, or better yet, a market test of whether a private firm would build it, the answer is clearly no. This four-lane bridge would not have enough demand to pay the tolls required to fund it. That should tell you something about its true necessity. The Franken article cited above suggested Wisconsin wasn’t interested in funding it. Since the majority of benefits for the bridge accrue to Wisconsin land owners, it makes no sense for Minnesota to lead on this.


MN DOT Discusses Tolls To Pay For New St. Croix River Bridge

From MPR News:

Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Brad Larsen says a MnDOT study shows a $1.50 toll each way would, over time, raise nearly half the cost of a new $642 million St. Croix River bridge.

Larsen says a tolling plan would need clearance at both the federal and state level.

I think it is encouraging that MN DOT is considering (or at least exploring) tolls to pay for this bridge.  I don’t think the bridge is necessary, but if it is built, tolls should pay for it.  A more glaring example of how the system subsidizes greenfield, exurban development is hard to find.

Note that as it stands, the bridge cannot be built because the National Park Service has determined the bridge would “fundamentally change the scenic qualities that existed when the St. Croix was designated a national wild and scenic river in 1972” and would have “direct and adverse effects that cannot be avoided or eliminated.”

New I-35W Bridge opens tomorrow!

The new I-35W bridge opens tomorrow morning at 5 am.  I’ll be crossing it around 7:15 am, maybe I’ll try to take some pictures.  It only took 437 days to build, but it sure looks sturdy.  Minnesota got some other transportation improvements because of the bridge collapse that were supposed to be temporary, but will be sticking around, like the extra lanes on I-94 and commuter bus service to Forest Lake.