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Victory on the St. Croix, but over what?

Last week it was announced that a Federal judge ruled in favor of the Sierra Club in their opposition to the construction of a new bridge over the St. Croix river near the town of Stillwater, Minnesota. For environmentalists, this is a huge victory. For DOT's, local politicians and bridge advocates, this is a temporary setback. For Strong Towns, this entire thing is bizarre.

For environmental activists, this is a tremendous "process" victory. We use the word "process" to indicate that the ruling seems to have been made on process grounds, not overall environmental grounds. The judge simply indicated that the Parks Service had not done all the dotting and crossing it needed to in order to satisfy Federal law. From the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

[Chief Judge Michael] Davis ruled that the park service arbitrarily reversed its decision when it signed off on plans for the new bridge. The agency's approval of the bridge proposal in 2005 ignored its 1996 position that a massive bridge south of Stillwater would have a "dramatic and disruptive" impact to the river's scenery, he wrote.

The park service's "failure to acknowledge its previous contrary position, let alone explain why, in its opinion, a change is justified, is the hallmark of an arbitrary and capricious decision," Davis concluded.

So once the Park Service hires a P.R. firm, gets a couple lawyers to draft a new brief and holds a couple of public hearings, the project is back in business. That is obviously the view of the project advocates. From the same article:

"That's the history of this project; it's just one delay after another," said Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki. "This is going to set us back five years. ... Just think of how many millions of dollars have been wasted on something that has been needed for over 50 years; it started with President Truman."

This is where a Strong Towns analysis is important. Let's start that by focusing on the Mayor's word, "needed". This project "has been needed for over 50 years." Really?

Here are some project facts:

  • Total Cost: Estimated at $668 million
  • Total Traffic: 16,000 vehicles per day
  • Cost per Vehicle: $41,750

If we were to finance the cost of this bridge at 4% over 40 years and then charge a toll for everyone that crosses, the toll would have to be $5.74 just to pay the debt (not counting the cost of collection, which one report indicates would be an additional 20%). For a person that commutes from Wisconsin to the Twin Cities five-days a week, 46 weeks a year, that is an added cost of at least $1,320 per year ($1,580 if the cost of collection is included).

But if this project is so desperately "needed" - since the days of Truman no less - is anyone talking about asking the people who live along the eastern banks of the scenic St. Croix to pay for it? Is anyone asking those that escape the "city life" to live on a nice, wooded estate in rural Wisconsin to kick in a dime for this project? Are the local residents, anxious to have this essential improvement move forward, stepping up with some of their own revenue sources to make the project go?

Of course not. As usual, the Federal no-car-left-behind transportation policy is again tapped to pay for the entire project. That formula:

Congestion + DOT = Taxpayer Dollars

This equation holds true regardless of whether or not a project makes any economic sense, whether it is the best use of our tax dollars and whether or not it will actually generate any return on the investment (not to mention whether or not it actually will "solve" congestion, because it never does that either).

This project is ridiculous. For a country going trillions in debt annually, facing ongoing, massive budget shortfalls and monumental liabilities for maintaining the infrastructure we already have, why are we even pondering this project?

But apparently, even the Sierra Club believes a project should happen.

“We’re not against a new bridge,” said Jim Rickard, vice chairman of the Sierra Club’s St. Croix Valley Interstate Group. “We just don’t support the current design. We would love to partner on alternative designs.”

This may just be a P.R. line from the local Sierra Club spokesman, but unless the "alternative design" would be a pay-per-trip barge, we would oppose it.

Strong Towns opposes the Stillwater Bridge project because it is a massive waste of taxpayer money, would generate little to no return on the investment and displaces resources that would be better used to strengthen our existing towns and neighborhoods.

Oh and, Sierra Club, if you find this logic compelling and believe it would resonate with the millions of unemployed Americans, the millions of business owners struggling to make payroll and the millions of families that sit at the kitchen table every night and try to figure out how to pay their bills, all of whom may or may not support your (in our opinion, compelling) environmental positions on this project, we release to you any copyright we hold over this article and these thoughts.

We also invite you to join us in building Strong Towns for America.


You can continue this Strong Towns conversation by posting a comment or by joining us on Facebook. You can also follow Strong Towns on Twitter. We appreciate all of the feedback and support.

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Reader Comments (3)

I totally agree that this bridge should be paid for by those who use it or benefit from it. I'm just not sure about the math. If there are 16 thousand crossings every day, that's about 5.8 million a year (really?). If motorists pay 50 cents (or even as little as a quarter per crossing), wouldn't that pay off the cost over 40 years? I know I haven't figured in the maintenance and staffing cost here. Is my math goofy here?


March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScott Hall

The Math

Project Cost: $668,000,000

Annual Payment @ 4% over 40 years: $33,734,000 / year

Traffic: 16,000 crossings/day x 365 days/year = 5,840,000 crossings/year

Cost per Crossing: $33,734,000/year / 5,840,000 crossings/year = $5.78/crossing

I would have included that, but it does not make for great reading (or great radio). :) Thanks for making that point, Scott. If others have the same question, I'd like to answer it.


March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

To follow up on that....here is some fun math. Let's forget about interest for now (the whole time-value-of-money thing is passe anyway).

Let's do the math as Scott (a really smart, common-sense kind of guy) suggests. How about a quarter a crossing? Seems reasonable.

A quarter a trip would generate: 5,840,000 trips/year x $0.25/trip = $1,460,000 / year

WITHOUT interest, at that rate it would take 458 years to pay for the project.

$668,000,000 / $1,460,000 = 458 years

Of course, with interest, the payoff time would be moot because the amount generated would never even pay for the interest. If the project were bonded (as a private improvement) and then paid by those that benefit, the total cost after 40 years would be $1.35 billion dollars. That is the time value of money. It also demonstrats why it does matter where and how we spend today.


March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn
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