Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Controversial St. Croix River Crossing Project

St. Croix River and Stillwater Lift Bridge

Imagine yourself floating along the St. Croix River on a paddleboat, sipping a beverage and enjoying the scenic river bluffs and historic landmarks of Stillwater. You feel a warm summer breeze, and in the background you hear…high speed traffic on a 4-lane freeway-style bridge. That scenario will become reality if the current proposal for the St. Croix River Crossing Project is built.

The full stretch of the St. Croix River has been protected since 1972 by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was created by former U.S. Senator Walter Mondale,[1] who strongly opposes the proposed St. Croix River Crossing project.[2]

Read Mn/DOT’s project summary here. Check out this project animation:

Key issues of the project:
  • The ‘direct and adverse effects on the river;’[3] see the Sierra Club’s views here
  • The condition of the existing 80-year old bridge;[4] one report estimates $26 million will be required for rehabilitation in 2020-21 to keep the bridge operating[5]
  • Congestion in Stillwater due to approach roadways;[6] the count of roughly 18,000 vehicles per day is expected to grow in the future[7]

Dollars and Sense
Minnesota’s financial situation makes a strong argument against the project, too. Mn/DOT is 20 years behind in the investment needed to preserve our existing infrastructure.[8] That makes the price tag on this project particularly hard to swallow. The project is estimated to cost up to $690 million,[9] with Minnesota’s share as high as $380 million.[10] To put that into perspective, the I-35W replacement bridge (140,000 vehicles per day) was $234 million,[11] and the Crosstown/I-35W interchange was $288 million.[12]

Not only does this project’s price mean that millions of dollars would be unavailable for other transportation projects, it also means Minnesota tax payers would be footing the bill for Wisconsin commuters.[13] In other words, we would be internalizing the cost rather than exporting it.

Alternative financing measures to fund the project have been explored and show promise.[14] Tolling could pay for “nearly half of [the project’s] capital costs as well as all of its ongoing operations and maintenance” but is not a perfect solution.[15] One study revealed that a toll can be inefficient because demand for use of the bridge is price elastic: when the toll fee goes up over $3.00 (one way tolling) there is a diversion rate of 23%.[16] Two-way tolling diversion is slightly less at 15%.[17] Diversion is possible because there are three other bridges within 30 miles, including the I-94 crossing 6 miles south.

Bottom line
This is not the right bridge and definitely not the right price. While alternative financing is an option, the true cost of the project is out of scale considering the number of vehicle crossings per day, the environmental impact, and the opportunity cost of other projects. Stillwater needs a new bridge, but not this bridge.

[1] http://www.mn2020.org/issues-that-matter/transportation/the-battle-of-st.-croix-bridge
[2] http://www.startribune.com/local/east/118625714.html
[3] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/stcroix/background.html
[4] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/stcroix/background.html
[5] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/stcroix/pdfs/sfeis2006/Full%20Chapters/TechnicalMemoranda/StCroixSFEIS-BCATechMemo.pdf
[6] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/stcroix/background.html
[7] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/stcroix/background.html
[8] http://www.growthandjustice.org/20_Years_Behind_-_The_time_has_come_for_smart_investments_in_Minnesota_s_infrastructure2.html
[9] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/stcroix/pdfs/status/CHAP%20152TotalProjCostEstimateFeb2011.pdf
[10] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/stcroix/pdfs/status/CHAP%20152TotalProjCostEstimateFeb2011.pdf
[11] http://projects.dot.state.mn.us/35wbridge/bridgeFAQ.html
[12] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/projects/crosstown/
[13] http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2010/11/29/the-ridiculous-old-economy-project-that-wont-die.html
[14] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/govrel/reports/2011/stillwater-if/St_Croix_Report_final.pdf
[15] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/govrel/reports/2011/stillwater-if/St_Croix_Report_final.pdf
[16] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/govrel/reports/2011/stillwater-if/St_Croix_Report_final.pdf
[17] http://www.dot.state.mn.us/govrel/reports/2011/stillwater-if/St_Croix_Report_final.pdf

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