The Stillwater Bridge Story Part 1: The Backstory Behind the Bridge

September 3, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment

1931 Stillwater Bridge

Part I: The Backstory Behind the Bridge

Undoubtedly the highest profile road project in Minnesota is the new bridge at Stillwater, the St. Croix Crossing. (The project was originally known officially as the Stillwater-Houlton Bridge, or colloquially just the Stillwater Bridge, before the present name). Although there is a lot of current information available, the concept for a new bridge goes back three generations, with information getting hard to find the farther back you go, so this is Part I of a planned series of four posts to provide this history. At this point arguing about the merits or lack of merits is “water under the bridge” so rather than be an opinion piece this is intended to be more of a factual overview. There are some rather hyperbolic opinions that officials have stated that I repeat as part of the the history of the project, and I have tried to restrain my own enthusiasm for the project.

The 1931 Bridge

To begin, it’s interesting to take a step back and back and see that history repeats itself. The current structure built in 1931 was viewed as the ultimate solution to an ongoing problem. It was the result of decades of lobbying by the city to replace an inadequate, deteriorating structure and controversy over cost and location. Also interesting is the 1918 Stillwater City Plan which envisioned a grand rounds parkways system, a state park from downtown to Taylor’s Falls, and a majestic town square style municipal campus on the hill in line with the 1931 bridge.

Bridge 01

Stillwater “Municipal Campus” proposal with the city hall, armory, courthouse, and community hall.

1950s Plans

Only a generation later, with exploding post-war vehicle traffic, it was obvious the 1931 bridge was going to be inadequate for vehicle traffic in the future, and planning started for a replacement. I have no documentation, but at a public meeting for the new bridge, some old-timers were mentioning about how MnDOT was finally “keeping their promise to the town” and that the original “High Bridge” proposal was north of town. Around 1950 MN Highway 96, which formerly went through the center of town, was bypassed to the north. Directly across from the new ending was a curve in WI Highway 64, so although I have no documentation it’s not much of a stretch to think that a new bridge was intended to go here.

Bridge 02

MN 96 rerouting, old route in gray and new route in red. Was MN 96 to extend across the river?

1960s and 1970s Plans

By the time the 1961 Stillwater Comprehensive Plan came out, the new bridge was proposed in more or less the original location. The four lane MN Highway 212 (As the MN Highway 36 east of Stillwater Boulevard was then numbered) had recently been bypassed around Lookout Trail, and would have been extended to the new bridge. Since the railroad was still in use, likely this would have required substantial cuts and retaining walls into the bluff. There also would have been a “ring road” system around downtown Stillwater, presumably wide, suburban-style roads, and also discussion of extending Manning Avenue and relocating MN Highway 95 onto it as a north-south bypass. Also interesting was this comment: “Originally the new bridge was seen to be constructed after 1980. It now appears it may possibly become a reality by 1970”.

Bridge 03

1961 proposal for the Stillwater area showing a westerly bypass of MN 95.

Bridge 04

1961 proposal for the downtown area and the connection to the MN 36 freeway.

Bridge 05

What might have been. The new “ring road” system is in red and the footprint for the new freeway interchange and the bridge is in yellow


With a a wide, suburban-style road between the city and the river, the result would have been something like downtown Shakopee is now. And the interchange would have precluded any parkland south of downtown–although at the time the area was still in use by heavy industry. A 1966 suggestion of a double left turn lane coming off the bridge combined with removing parking on Main Street wasn’t implemented either.

A 1969 article in the internal Department of Highways magazine “Minnesota Highways” notes that a new bridge would “undoubtedly be built at a different location” because of flooding (although that may mean just the few blocks difference). The replacement cost estimate was $5,154,000 and the daily traffic total was 7,000, with replacement proposed 1975-1980. And there’s the suggestion the old bridge was already becoming a maintenance headache.

The 1972 Stillwater Comprehensive Plan dropped the ring roads in favor of a one way pair with Main and Water Streets, and is mum on the location of a new bridge. But the plan notes that most of the traffic problems in downtown are caused by the current location of the bridge, with the comment that on weekends Stillwater, “can be engulfed in traffic snarls typical of New York or Los Angeles.”

The 1979 plan notes the long term goal is to build interchanges along MN Highway 36, along with noting the “much discussed bridge hasn’t had a location selected, nor funding before 1990 at the earliest”, and notes drivers are cutting through residential areas to avoid “severe congestion” on the arterial streets. It wasn’t until the 1980s that talk and vague plans lurched forward into potential reality.

The 1985 Draft Study, 1990 DEIS, and 1995 Final EIS

Things got moving for real in in 1985 with the St. Croix River Crossing Draft Study Outline and Scoping Document. Originally there were seven options: A north bridge or tunnel, a new bridge at the current location, a new bridge just south of the current location, a new bridge or tunnel south of town, or building a drawbridge instead of a high bridge at any of the above bridge locations. Building a new drawbridge was dropped immediately due to traffic issues, and building a high bridge at the existing location was dropped due to the extreme disruption of the freeway approach being routed along Stillwater Boulevard, and Olive Street. Carried forward to the 1990 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) were the remaining three bridge and two tunnel alternatives.

Bridge 06

1985 Study Proposals, with the potential freeway approach roads in gray. I’m assuming only freeway approaches were considered due to traffic projections were such that there would be operational problems even with wide suburban-style roads.

The two tunnel alternatives were rejected due to environmental damage, restrictions on trucks, steep grades (5%), and costs. The North Alignment was rejected due to the excessive new construction required south and west of Stillwater, that north of town is when the river actually becomes more wild and scenic, and impacts to environmental and historic resources. I’ll also throw out the observations that it would have shifted the costs even more disproportionately to Minnesota (each state is responsible for 50% of the bridge structure, but 100% of the cost of their approach roads), and it would be a roundabout way for the “Walmart and Applebee’s” crowd from Wisconsin to get to the existing suburban strip south of town. It might have even resulted in a new round of suburban-style development along the new freeway, and/or such traffic cutting through the downtown area.

The Central Alignment (either a new four-lane bridge or a new two lane eastbound only) was rejected due to the damage to the bluffs and existing and proposed parkland a new freeway would cause between downtown Stillwater and the existing highway south of town. The aesthetic concerns of bridge high enough to allow river traffic near the old bridge and the downtown area was another reason the central alignment was discarded. As a side note, there was an option of a short tunnel to lessen the impact to the bluffs on either the central or south alignments.

Thus the 1995 Final EIS was when the choice was locked in the choice of a bluff-spanning bridge on the South Alignment. The estimated cost was $88 million dollars in 1990, rising to $120 million dollars in 1995; this was before years of construction inflation and included none of the expensive mitigation items as what’s being built. The goal was to be as unobtrusive as possible to the natural surroundings, and specifically to avoid any structures that could be seen outside of the valley, so a low-key girder design was chosen. The haunched girders (with small curves to them) gave it at least a tiny bit of flair. As a side note, I recently asked an engineer how much it would have cost to build a generic girder bridge instead of the current design. He refused to speculate, but noted that although choosing an extradosed span was entirely aesthetic, there was at least some engineering justification, that being the difficulty of building piers on the St. Croix River. 

Bridge 07

Rendering of the 1995 design from the scenic overlook.

But of course this never got built, as the gears were turning to get it built, gears were also turning to stop it, and as they collided they meshed into a jam, with the project neither proceeding nor permanently dropped for the next 15 years. Although final design work (costing $1 Million) and all the right-of-way was acquired, in June 1996 environmental groups sued the federal government to stop the bridge, and after an unfavorable ruling was finalized in April, 1998, bridge supporters worked to find an alternate that would still handle the expected traffic while satisfying more (if not all) of the bridge opponents. Thus entered retired Mn/DOT commissioner Richard Braun (the person the MN 610 Braun Bridge is named after) as a facilitator.

The Braun Process

The Braun process looked at several locations and types, and proposed a steel deck-arch bridge halfway between the old bridge and the 1995 EIS preferred site.  Putting the bridge here would have required a substantially shorter bridge, and less disruption to the bluffs on the Wisconsin side due to an existing ravine, and allowed Oak Park Heights to reclaim the “ghost neighborhood” that had been cleared for the 1995 FEIS proposal. The disadvantage would be it required an “S”-curve on the Minnesota side and a complicated interchange with MN 95 and created more impacts to the parks and bluffs south of downtown. Despite these drawbacks, myself, the city of Stillwater, and most bridge supporters would have accepted a “2nd Braun Bridge” if it had come down to building it vs building nothing or building at the existing location.

Bridge 08

The three locations studied by Braun compared to the 1995 FEIS preferred alternative

Braun Alternative “C” became known formally if inappropriately known  as the “Consensus Proposal”, and moved forward with a February 1999 amendment to the original scoping document, a March 2000 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and a December 2000 “Section 7(a)” approval by the National Park Service. A 2001 Supplemental Draft EIS was prepared by never released due to the suspension of the project in Jan 2001. Meanwhile the original 1996 lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice on the grounds that it referred to an alternative that was no longer being considered. Whatever the merits of the Braun proposal, ultimately it was doomed because satisfying “more” people was not satisfying “enough”.


The Smith Ave High Bridge, the most notable steel deck truss bridge and one possibility what the Braun proposal could have looked like.

Bridge 10

Braun Proposal Rendering

The only rendering of the Braun proposal I could find is really terrible, but I include it to give a sense of scale relative to the location. For a better idea of what it might look like there is the Sellwood bridge, currently under construction in Oregon, and the Smith Ave High Bridge;  two weathered steel deck-arch bridges. The height of the Stillwater Bridge would have been between the two, and wider than both.

Due to lack of unanimous support, and ongoing issues about what to do about the old bridge and how to pay for it, the process ground to a halt even before an official lawsuit was even filed, and work was officially suspended on Jan 12, 2001. However in 2001 and then again in 2002 the Minnesota legislature mandated Mn/DOT not remove it from the state transportation improvement program. Then in 2002 the process was restarted with putting all parties together and hoping they could agree, the Stakeholder’s Process.

The “3-Architects” Plan

Meanwhile, in 2000 three architects in  Stillwater, under the name “Friends of the St. Croix”, proposed an alternate to the Braun plan, where a new two lane, 40 mph eastbound bridge would be built, and the existing lift bridge converted to westbound traffic. They called it the “Citizens Common Sense Plan”, but I refer to it as the 3-Architects Plan as that is how official documents refer to it as. It was similar to an earlier option, and Mn/DOT rejected it for the same reasons: the impact of a 60 foot high bridge near the downtown, that even with removing parking from Main Street there were questions about the capacity of downtown streets, and the required four-lane divided approach road and ramp to the bridge was contrary to the city goal of new parkland extending south from downtown. In one of the goofiest proposals I’ve ever heard, at one of the public meetings I attended one of the environmentalist group representatives suggested both bridges could be reversible so the peak traffic would use the new bridge in both the AM and PM.

Stakeholder Group and the Final Location

The Stakeholders met from 2003 to 2006, culminating in the 2006 Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement. Since the Braun alignment didn’t appease opponents, the location reverted to the more logical extension of MN 36 directly across the river. In the intervening years a new bridge type had been developed, the extradosed bridge. It seemed like a natural fit for this situation, since the desire since the beginning of the process and still was to minimize the number of river piers while avoiding any overhead structure that could be seen out of the valley (although there was a minority voice that felt that a dramatic signature bridge would not inappropriate and the opportunity to build such was being wasted). Derived from the French word extradossé, (exterior curve of an arch), an extradosed bridge is basically a hybrid of a girder bridge and a cable stayed bridge. They require fewer bridge piers for a given span due to the cables providing supplemental compression of the bridge segments. Enough compression can overcome the force of gravity, similar to holding a big stack of books against a wall.

Finally, with the stakeholders proposal came dropping the idea of a freeway east of Stillwater Blvd. The primary reason was the city of Oak Park Heights, which (not without justification) had been concerned and  even stubborn throughout the whole project,  didn’t want to lose the tax base of the highway oriented businesses. But a secondary reason was that even to supporters it was obvious costs were getting out of control due to years of construction inflation, increasingly elaborate structure designs, and more and more mitigation.

The Memorandum of Understanding

Along with the Stakeholders group, the Memorandum of Understanding formalized the mitigation due to the inpacts on environmental and historic resources. The actual document is 41 pages and includes such minute details as requiring highway exit signs say “Downtown Stillwater”, so to summarize the key points:

1) The old bridge would be saved with an $3 million endowment for maintenance, and become part of what’s now known as the “Loop Trail”, for $7 million. Preservationists insisted it stay, environmentalists insisted on no net increase in transportation corridors across the river. (Why they couldn’t just close a minor two lane township bridge someplace in northern Wisconsin I don’t know). Eventually they decided that a bicycle bridge wasn’t a “transportation corridor” and relented on the old bridge staying.

2) Several man-made structures would be removed; the Terra Terminal building (which Stillwater had previously planned to renovate a a picnic shelter or visitors center), the “Buckhorn” sign on the Wisconsin side, and the Xcel Energy barge terminal, which whether or not you like concrete bridges has to be far uglier.

3) The Shoddy Mill buildings, a pair of old industrial buildings in the path of the new highway in Oak Park Heights, would be moved. This wound up costing over $1 million and questions were raised even by preservationists about whether it was worth it, but it was part of the deal so it happened. They wound up at the site of the Terra Terminal building, to be used somehow as part of the new park.

4) $2.5 Million to buy fee title, development rights, or conservation easements on blufflands.

5) Restoration of the scenic overlook along Lookout trail, built before the highway was relocated, but still maintained by Mn/DOT.

Bridge 11

The Xcel Barge unloading terminal, probably one of the ugliest things mankind has built.

The “Sensible Bridge”

As a counter-proposal, the Sensible Bridge surfaced. The major difference between this and previous “low and slow” designs was a three lane bridge with the center lane reversible, rather than a two lane bridge with the old bridge kept for westbound traffic   Originally the new freeway would have ended at a roundabout leading to the bridge and downtown, however later the group acknowledged that an interchange would be necessary in order to handle traffic. The suggestion was made that the bridge be tolled to repress demand.

Mn/DOTs response was similar to their reaction to the first such proposal. In addition to expressing doubts that it would be any cheaper due to having to restart the design and environmental process and resultant years of construction inflation, they note that the single lane in the “reverse” direction would be inadequate for traffic near the end of the planning horizon. Finally, there was insufficient space for storm-water ponds and a protected mussel habitat on the Wisconsin side. Stillwater’s mayor, Ken Harycki, was another blistering critic, stating the bridge would be “functionally obsolete upon opening”, and “would obliterate Stillwater’s views from downtown”. My own thoughts add that a three lane undivided road connecting two freeways seems like an enormous safety issue.

The group’s web page and Facebook site are now defunct, but quite a few resources show Stakeholders Option E3, which while not the actual proposal have been similar other than and interchange on the Minnesota site and three lanes.

Ongoing Litigation and the “Final Answer”

Ultimately though the Stakeholder group did nothing to solve the underlying issue: any bridge that would be adequate for projected future traffic would not be acceptable to environmentalists, and in turn any bridge that would be acceptable to environmentalists would not handle projected traffic. So the pushing and shoving continued.  As Rep. Ron Kind, (D-Wi) put it, “Let’s build one that’s worthy of the projected growth of the region so that we’re not revisiting this 10, or 15, or 20 years down the road and kicking ourselves that we did not make it as big as it should be.”

The National Park Service approved the design in 2005, but the environmentalists, having not gotten their way while they were part of the Stakeholder’s process, filed yet another lawsuit to stop the project, based on allegations that the NPS failed to follow it’s own guidelines in approving the design, and in Mar 2010 a federal judge agreed.  Since compromises that could still handle the projected traffic had failed, and litigation had gone against them, ultimately what should have been a local project rather than the national circus it turned out to be had to be taken to the highest level, with congressional bills to allow it passing both houses by huge majorities and President Obama signing it on Mar 14, 2012, finally ending 60 years of plans, speculation, and uncertainty.



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