St. Croix River Crossing: 'We'll Just Have to Agree to Disagree'
As the St. Croix River Crossing project awaits a House vote, Stillwater City Council members debate the bridge, the recent survey and the need for river crossing lobbyists.
The Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing held a news conference Monday afternoon to release the results of a survey stating that 86 percent of voters in the St. Croix River Valley believe the four-lane bridge from Oak Park Heights to Houlton needs to be built now.
But not everyone is buying into the survey’s results.
“I think the survey needs to be seriously challenged,” Stillwater City Council Member Micky Cook said Tuesday afternoon. “To headline a news event with these dazzling figures after polling 400 people is irresponsible.”
The in-kind donation was done at the request of the St. Paul Area Realtors Association and the Western Wisconsin Realtors Association, Mike Wilhelmi, executive director of the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing said. Each association is represented by membership in the Coalition.
Of the 400 interviews, 162 were done in Minnesota and 238 interviews were conducted in Wisconsin, according to the survey. Wisconsin's support for a new bridge was 94 percent, while 81 percent of the Minnesotans sampled were supportive of the effort.
“A survey asking people in the valley about a new bridge is a lot like asking Twins fans if they want to see the Twins in the World Series,” Roger Tomten of the Sensible Stillwater Bridge Partnership said. “Or in this case, since the greater majority of those surveyed were from Wisconsin, it would be like asking if they want to see the Packers in the Super Bowl? Of course they do.”
But Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki said after years of working on this project, the survey simply confirms what he hears from people in Stillwater every day.
“I think deep down in my heart I knew this was the type of response we would get,” he said. “It was just the right thing to do. We didn’t need a poll to do the right thing, but it is good and it is gratifying to have some support for our work.”
Harycki said he trusts the poll’s results.
“I had guessed 80 percent,” he said. “Because that’s what we’re hearing on the street. We’re supposed to represent the people and this is what we’re hearing. People are saying get it built—and do it now.”
Carol Hardin, Chair of the Sierra Club St. Croix Valley Group, continues to support the construction of a lower, less-intrusive bridge that will "meet residents’ needs at a fraction of the cost of the four-lane mega bridge."
"It is no surprise that most respondents support the currently proposed project—they are being given a false choice between a costly mega bridge that is neither fiscally or environmentally responsible, and no action," she said. "Meanwhile, residents in communities across the state with urgent road and bridge repairs have not had a voice."
Cook says many of her constituents are “looking at the survey with a lot of suspicions.”
“The fact that the survey was donated to the Coalition by the National Realtors Association really calls that into question,” Cook said. “How credible is a survey done by a group with such an obvious vested interest?
“People I’m hearing from say they believe developers are driving local support,” she continued. “They’re trying to engender local support that is not as widespread as they thought with a survey.”
Bridge Lobbyist Part II
The bridge debate spilled into Tuesday night’s city council meeting, when City Attorney Dave Magnuson advised city officials that he has drafted a contract if the city wants to retain a lobbyist to work on the St. Croix River Crossing issue.
The Council tried that back in July when they voted 4-1 to give the Coalition $80,000 for lobbying efforts. Shortly after that, the State Auditor’s Office launched an investigation and determined that the city violated TIF laws and wrongfully paid money to a nonprofit, rather than a lobbyist.
“There are no laws that prohibit contracting with a lobbyist,” Magnuson said. “Most every community of every size in the state has a lobbyist on retainer, at least during the legislative session. So the issue of the format has been taken care of. The question is would you like to retain a lobbyist and how much do you want to pay?”
The lobbyists would be independent of the Coalition, Magnuson said. They would work for the city on the bridge legislation.
“The same people who have been working for the Coalition, would contract with the city directly to continue the work they started for the Coalition,” he said. They would be Goff and Wilhemi, he said.
Currently, the city also retains a contract with Mike Campbell of the Conach Group as a legislative consultant.
Harycki says that the city’s use of the legislative consultant has really paid off.
“Even up to a year ago this whole bridge crossing was more or less a dead issue,” Harycki said. “There was nothing happening at the local level, at the state level or at the federal level. It was really through the efforts of our legislative consultant that we came up with the strategy to close the bridge down—and that really got the ball rolling.”
Even today, the consultants are tending to some last-minute details with the bridge crossing, he said. There is value to the city, but it’s up to the Council to decide what they want to do with it.
“I think it’s important that we need to move ahead with the bridge stuff,” Council Member Mike Polehna said. “But right now I feel like I’m kind of in limbo with that not knowing what one (legislative consultant) is doing and then the amount I would like to give (to lobbyists). I don’t want to make a rash decision. I want to think it out.”
Given the economic climate—and other needs throughout the city—Cook said “it seems like an outrageous expenditure” to give more tax dollars to the Coalition, given the bridge’s momentum.
“Once again, it’s not a Stillwater bridge,” Cook said. “It’s a St. Croix crossing. It’s out of Oak Park Heights. If anything we should be figuring out what we should be doing with our congestion in the interim, which will need to be addressed regardless, because this project won’t be in place tomorrow.
“To make Stillwater carry the water continually on this project is absolutely unacceptable in my opinion,” she said. “And to ask the residents to pay for a lobbyist to add onto money that’s already being thrown at this effort through the Coalition is ridiculous, when we could be cleaning up our lakes throughout the city and we could be finding other projects that need our money.”
But Polehna said he disagrees that residents are throwing their money away on the bridge project.
“Everyone I’ve heard wants a new bridge,” he said. “I know you hear from the people who don’t want the bridge, but as I’ve said before you and I will agree to disagree on that.”
Polehna said he believes the Stillwater community needs to move ahead on this bridge.
“Other people are fighting just as hard to stop it,” he said. “I believe we need to fight for that bridge for all we’re worth. I don’t need somebody from St. Paul telling me what we need in Stillwater. That’s garbage.”
Cook argued that while the state is trying to get $2 million dollars to complete the Brown’s Creek Trail, it’s throwing $700 million at a bridge.”
“But, why is that? Because all the anti-people threw all these smoke screens up for 20 or 30 years and now it’s gone from $100 million to 600 million,” Polehna said. “That’s the problem. So we’re going to bring people into Stillwater that can’t even get to Stillwater because they’re going to be tied up in traffic at the top of the hill.”
The Council will never agree on this issue, Cook said.
“But it’s important for people to hear both sides of the argument,” she said. “It’s important that people hear the truth. We are a city divided.”
The poll results certainly don’t indicate that Stillwater is a city divided on this issue, Harycki said.
“Are we really going to go there?” Cook countered. “Four-hundred people—87 percent of 162 people? What kind of a study is that? You talked to 400 people, only 167 of them from Minnesota and you extrapolate that it’s 95 percent of the people in the region support that bridge. That is irresponsible at best.”
“I think the Pioneer Press did a good analysis on it whether it was legitimate or not,” Harycki said. “And they said it was.”