...and other reasons we will be watching the Stillwater Bridge lawsuit results.
Yes, it's true. We have a lack of quality jobs in Western Wisconsin. Maybe it's because of our affection for anything "Big Time" - a former local Mayor once declared a city holiday when a McDonalds opened in his river town eight years ago - or maybe it's because the State of Minnesota has decided that the World We Pay Attention To ends at the St. Croix River. Or maybe there's just not enough of us to justify working, living wages (Polk County's unemployment rates are traditionally among the highest in the Midwest.)
Regardless of why, until the recent housing meltdown/collapse, parts of the region (St. Croix County, specifically) were among the fastest growing areas in the Midwest, and ranked pretty high, nationally, as well.
Hence the long, drawn out fight for a new Stillwater Bridge (aka "The St. Croix River Crossing Project") which officially goes back nearly SIXTY years!
In an interview several years ago, current District 30 legislator Kitty Rhoades (R-Hudson) made her pitch for the new bridge, and brought up how some of the first correspondence on the need for a replacement to the venerable Lift Bridge would be needed soon.
"That first letter to the State Highway Commissioner was written the month I was born, April 1951!" She said without battling an eyelash on the obvious mathematical-age-determining-formula she handed me.
"And now I'm bombarded with AARP literature!"
Rep. Rhoades has joined forces with all Western Wisconsin legislators, and numerous Minnesotans, of all flavors, ages and parties in pushing for a new bridge, yesterday.
Several false starts along the way have seen the costs of the project mushroom from "several million dollars" in the early Sixties, to reports of almost $700 million today. But the real "fly in the ointment" in the past decade-and-a-half was a successful Sierra Club/National Park Service lawsuit in 1996 that sent the whole project back to Zero.
That lawsuit forced the creation of a group of so-called "Stakeholders" - ranging from local and state governments from both sides of the river, to environmental and transportation groups, as well as DNR and National Parks Service interests (The St. Croix Riverway is a Scenic National Riverway) to weigh-in on the most recent incarnation of a bridge, approved in a memorandum of Understanding by the Feds in
The NPS changed their tunes, and approved the most recent designs. Because of that, it has been pretty much the "Sierra Club against the World" in the latest lawsuit, which claims the most recent draft design is no real improvement over previous versions.
After several delays, that lawsuit comes to a head in the coming weeks in a Federal Courtroom in Minneapolis, and there seems to be little doubt by most of the players that some sort of bridge will come out of Chief Judge Michael Davis' summary judgement.
"The biggest issue now will be money," stated Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R- River Falls) at a recent Wisconsin Towns Association meeting. "We're staring at a lot of red ink in the (Wisconsin) state budget, and Minnesota isn't much better off."
A number of local elected officials were disappointed the Bridge Project did not qualify for economic stimulus cash, since it is still at least three years away from having ground broken - even if the latest Sierra Club lawsuit collapses.
But much of the design and prep work has already been completed or is ready to roll, since the various stages of Environmental Impact Studies have made their way sluggishly while the lawsuit spooled up and moved eventually into a courtroom.
The need for a new bridge may have waned somewhat in the past year with the "cooled" Western Wisconsin housing build-up, but the region will no doubt continue to be a growing metropolitan player, as the tired and aging Lift Bridge sputters like a 50s Buick - classic in design, but woefully behind the times in modern terms.
History played a role in the Stakeholders Group, with several historians and preservation players pushing for and winning approval for a sort of "bike and hike retirement" for the old bridge.
The near-final plan would save the rare, classic lifter, and turn it into a silent sports icon if the new bridge is built, and part of a grandiose bike and hike trail that runs the old alignment from downtown Stillwater across to Houlton and downstream to the new bridge and into Oak Park Heights.
That brought quite a few historians on board, and also some of the very people who fought so hard to kill the project previously.
While the monetary costs continue to spiral up - more than doubling since the original Sierra Club/NPS lawsuit was filed - the cost in environmental damage is also noteworthy: Hundreds of thousands of idling, creeping car and trucks every year.
The volume of vehicles continuing to make their way through St. Croix County and into downtown Stillwater and back again each day continues to grow, sometimes pausing for half-an-hour at a time to wait for river traffic or obsolete engineering repairs or upgrades. Those repairs can cause legendary congestion or detours, since there are only a few nearby crossing alternatives: Hudson, Osceola and St. Croix Falls.
And while the Twin Cities suburban ring inches west to Big Lake, St. Cloud and the like, the Metropolitan Council has only recently begun to take the western Wisconsin region into their future plans. meaning commuter trains and rail alternatives are decades away from fruition.
But the Western Wisconsin Commuter Secret - previously only relayed by realtors and commuters with a few to many 'Leinies' under their belts means the 'Sconnie growth should continue.
That secret? The sun is always to our backs.
Don't tell 'em, I told you.