As work begins in earnest on the new bridge across the river at Stillwater, MinnPost columnist Ron Meador has published a two-part interview with Jim Erkel, a lawyer and transportation expert with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
The interview skips the usual arguments about impacts on the wild and scenic river, and rather focuses on how the bridge fits — or doesn’t — into the region’s overall transportation planning and state budget. Keep reading for excerpts and links to the two-part interview.
Part One: Stillwater bridge cost can be measured not only in millions but in lost lives
Late last week, with the Stillwater bridge in the headlines again — a symbolic groundbreaking, amid fresh disputes over bids and contracts — I had a long talk with Jim Erkel about a different way of pricing Minnesota’s most expensive bridge project.
Erkel is a lawyer and transportation expert who for the last dozen years has directed the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy program on land use and transportation.
In that role, he has registered MCEA’s consistent opposition to what he calls “the Big Bad Bridge” — a freeway-scale, highway-speed, blufftop-to-blufftop span downstream from Stillwater, and the option consistently favored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. MCEA is among the groups that unsuccessfully pressed for a smaller, lower, slower — and cheaper — bridge nearer the existing lift bridge.
But Erkel has also been involved more broadly and deeply in statewide transportation planning and policy issues than most of his allies in the bridge fight. So when I heard that he had been accumulating information on projects that may have been pushed aside by the Stillwater project — despite alarming patterns of accidents and fatalities — I was curious to hear more.
Erkel argues that safety-related improvements on three particular stretches of highway should be near the top of the state’s priority list for roadbuilding. He also thinks it likely, but admits he can’t prove, that some of this work had been in line for funding under a MnDOT proposal to shift $620 million into a “Better Roads for Minnesota” program in fiscal years 2012-2015 — until Gov. Mark Dayton moved the Stillwater project back into the queue.
Part Two: Slowing growth could make Stillwater bridge ‘a dinosaur the day it opens up’
Coverage of the Stillwater bridge controversy over the last 20 years has tended to emphasize “environmentalist” objections to the project, and I regularly meet people who think those were the only arguments raised against it.
In their minds, the opposition has been little more than NIMBY-type complaints from the Sierra Club and others who didn’t want “their valley” degraded by another concrete eyesore in the St. Croix River or by more sprawl in the still semi-rural counties to the east.
But back in the 1990s, when I first started writing about the subject for the Star Tribune editorial page, there was equally strong opposition from activist taxpayer groups who saw it simply as wasteful duplication of the I-94 freeway crossing six miles downstream.
Those arguments got much less attention. Still less was paid to what might be called planning and policy objections — issues that have been the primary concern of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
In a long interview last week, Jim Erkel, a lawyer and transportation expert who directs MCEA’s land use and transportation program, discussed some of the lessons on planning and policymaking that can be drawn from the Stillwater bridge case.
The argument that the St. Croix mega bridge was completely inconsistent with MNDOT’s long term regional planning and created a brand new major corridor complete with necessary upgrades that pushed the bridge cost over a billion was made over and over again. The bridge was a dinasaur even before it was started. Inventing a new way to spread out roads and development is incredibly costly for state highway departments and local municipalities. This bridge accomplishes that in spades. Listening to and watching the propoganda campaign to sell the bridge by MNDOT was absolutely puzzling. Why would they violate their own stated policy direction (no more major corridors, create density to conserve resources and revenue)and dump an ungodly amount of money into one bridge that solves a minor traffic problem for the state. It just was a stunning lack of consistency and logic that hogged too much of the budget. And yes, it was brought up over and over and over again. Horrendously bad transportation policy decision.