U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, while strongly criticizing President Barack Obama for presiding over a $1.65 trillion deficit, is expected to introduce legislation any day now that could add to that deficit while also pushing through an exemption to the Wild & Scenic River Act for a four-lane bridge through a national scenic riverway, according to those close to the issue.
At issue is a new bridge across the St. Croix River that divides Minnesota and Wisconsin, one that is expected to cost at least $700 million to build, and which would require an exemption to the Wild & Scenic River Act as that section of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway is covered by that act.
Last fall the National Park Service, after considering the project for a fourth time, refused to permit the new bridge, holding that it would present direct and adverse impacts to the river that could not be "avoided or eliminated."
But Rep. Bachmann, a Republican representing Minnesota's 6th Congressional District, has readied legislation to, in effect, overrule that Park Service decision. A draft of her bill states that "(C)onstruction of a four-lane highway bridge over the Lower St. Croix River ... is hereby deemed to be consistent with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act."
The congresswoman's efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last week U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota's 4th Congressional District, released a statement to make clear her opposition to the exemption being sought by her colleague and supported by the St. Croix (Wisconsin) County Commission.
"It is difficult to express how strongly I oppose the position taken by the St. Croix County Board. The proposed bridge across the St. Croix River – with an estimated cost of at least $700 million – is fiscally irresponsible, environmentally damaging, and will create a transportation mess for communities along Minnesota Highway 36 in the Congressional District I represent," Rep. McCollum said in a letter to the county commissioners, which had sought her support for the project.
"It has been reported, due to delays and inflation, the bridge project’s cost (in its current form) could exceed $1 billion. In recent days I have heard Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tell the national news media innumerable times how 'we’re broke,'" the congresswoman, a member of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee, continued. "How will the State of Wisconsin come up with its share of a $700 million to $1 billion project if it is 'broke'? As you well know, the State of Minnesota and the federal government are also facing significant fiscal challenges that make this type of excessive and irresponsible project both unwise and improbable."
According to Lynn McClure, the regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association's Midwest Region, in the past there have only been two exemptions issued for projects that fell within a Wild and Scenic river.
"One for a small water temperature facility on the South Fork of the Mackenzie River in Oregon, the other for a lamprey eel ladder' in the Pere Marquette in Michigan," said Ms. McClure. "There has never been an exemption for a transportation project, and certainly never for a project of this magnitude. There are bridges over Wild and Scenic rivers, but they were grandfathered in after the designation."
Last week Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton pulled back a bit from the project, saying that "all possibilities have been reopened for consideration," according to a story in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune.
"The situation remains the same as it did when I became U.S. senator 10 years ago," Gov. Dayton said Thursday. "Three federal agencies, all claiming jurisdiction, cannot agree on how Minnesota and Wisconsin can proceed. At this point, all possibilities have been reopened for consideration."
Ms. McClure, whose group opposes the bridge because of the impacts it would have on the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, said it also didn't make fiscal sense.
"At a time when Ms. Bachmann’s party has banned earmarks, and the state of Wisconsin is having highly-publicized fiscal issues, it’s tough to imagine where the funding for this bridge would come from," she told the Traveler. "NPS did the right thing to rule that this highway bridge would impact the resource and it should not be the mission of Congress to grant exemptions in the Wild & Scenic River Act – an act that has protected more than 150 of this country’s most beautiful rivers.
"The conservation community believes that there can be an alternative bridge design that will both ease traffic through Stillwater and pass NPS muster to protect the river," she added, "but there needs to be collective will to go back to the table and look into it."