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McCollum and Alexander: Proposed Bridge Is Monument to Waste

The Senate recently passed S. 1134 without debate. This legislation grants approval for construction of a $700 million bridge across the St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Like Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” this boondoggle bridge may soon become a national symbol of excess at taxpayer expense in the coming election cycle.

If this legislation, authored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), or its House companion (H.R. 850), sponsored by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), comes to the House floor for action, Members will have a clear litmus test on wasteful government spending.

Before the bubble burst on the real estate boom and borrowing binge of the past decade, a local stakeholder group cooked up a scheme to replace a small, aging bridge connecting Stillwater, Minn., (pop. 18,000) to Houlton, Wis., (pop. 386) with a $700 million mega-bridge.

Congress has been drawn into the controversy because the Department of the Interior determined that the proposed $700 million mega-bridge would violate the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which affords the St. Croix certain protections. As a result, the bridge cannot be built unless Congress grants an exemption to the law.

The Senate bill not only exempts a new bridge from current law, but it also mandates the exotic $700 million “extradosed” design, prohibiting construction of any less expensive, more appropriately scaled bridge. By passing the Klobuchar-Bachmann legislation, the House would not only be enabling Minnesota and Wisconsin to waste money, but would also be mandating that they do so.

We agree with federal, state and local leaders who believe a new bridge across the St. Croix is needed. However, opposition to the $700 million bridge proposal is growing at the state and local level. Nationally, the project is opposed by organizations across the ideological spectrum, from fiscal conservatives to environmental advocates. National media outlets have scrutinized the cost and scale of the St. Croix bridge project and have questioned whether it actually represents a massive Congressional earmark.

Let’s put the mega-bridge in context. Following the tragic collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis in 2007, a replacement bridge was built to serve 140,000 cars per day at a cost of $260 million — to date, the most expensive bridge ever built in Minnesota. In contrast, the St. Croix mega-bridge would serve only 18,000 cars the day it opens but would carry a price tag that is 260 percent more expensive.

Building such a monument to waste is also completely redundant and unnecessary because it would be located only five minutes from the existing eight-lane Interstate 94 bridge over the very same St. Croix River. The new economic reality of collapsed property values, falling traffic volumes, enormous budget deficits and shrinking transportation dollars makes the cost of this oversized bridge impossible to justify.

There is an alternative to this legislative ultimatum. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has offered to convene a Transportation Department-Congressional working group to reach consensus on a new bridge. This working group would provide a unique opportunity to resolve the controversy, expedite construction of an appropriately scaled bridge and free up millions of dollars to repair the more than 2,350 “structurally deficient” bridges in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Unfortunately, proponents of S. 1134 appear unwilling to come to the table and compromise, believing a successful vote in the House will sanction this boondoggle bridge and its waste of tax dollars.

This $700 million mega-bridge represents waste, not progress. Any legislator who is serious about ending wasteful public spending and costly federal mandates should take a stand against S. 1134 and its House companion, H.R. 850. The fact that these bills enjoy support from Members in both parties should serve as a reminder that bad policy and wasteful spending can be as bipartisan as good policy and wise spending.

When Congress approved Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere,” that boondoggle became a symbol of waste that voters did not forget. In 2012, the mega-bridge across the St. Croix need not become a similar symbol of government waste — or a campaign ad. We urge the House to reject S. 1134.

Rep. Betty McCollum (Minn.) is the No. 2 Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment. Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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