St. Croix River bridge bill passes U.S. House

st croix river
St Croix River | Jim Denham

“Today Congress disappoints Americans more than usual.”

That should be the headline in news outlets across the country highlighting the devastating action Congress took this morning to undermine one of our bedrock national environmental laws, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The U.S. House passed a bill, already greenlighted by the U.S. Senate, S. 1134, which is an earmark for the construction of a massively wasteful $700 million freeway bridge that will harm the federally protected St. Croix National Scenic Riverway in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Just when you thought you’d seen everything in Congress last night’s debate proved some interesting revelations. Supposedly fiscally conservative members of Congress (including many members of the Tea Party caucus) apparently dislike environmental laws more than they support fiscal responsibility. Otherwise environmentally inclined members of Congress can be blinded by a perceived need to be supportive of infrastructure spending in any form (the American Society of Civil Engineers puts a price tag on upgrading our failing infrastructure nationally at $2.2 trillion. There are over 2,300 existing bridges in Minnesota and Wisconsin in need of repair. The new bridge over the St. Croix alone is $700 million  and will serve only 18,000 cars a day).

Thankfully some members of Congress demonstrated true leadership. Most notably Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) demonstrated she is a champion of fiscal responsibility, the environment and simple common sense. Interestingly because of redistricting, the bridge site will be in her district starting next year. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) also stood up and gave passionate arguments opposing the bill, as did Rep. Raul GRijalva (D-AZ) and Rep Rush Holt (D-NJ). In the Senate, Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Mark Udall(D-CO), and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) also showed resolve saying the bill is, “bad policy and sets a dangerous precedent.”

During the spirited debate on the House floor over the bill Wednesday night, several proponents of the bridge disparaged the portion of the St. Croix River affected by the new super bridge questioning its “Wild and Scenic” character. In these remarks I also heard echoes of decisionmakers of last century who supported damming, channelizing, and degrading our nation’s great rivers big and small for the public interest at great cost, both environmental and economic.

Aren’t there some rivers and special places we can simply leave alone? The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is designed to set aside a small number of rivers, currently less than ¼ of 1 percent of river miles, across the country, for protection to complement all of the rivers that are dammed or developed.

Congress should open their eyes to the fact that communities across the country now see their healthy rivers as economic and recreational assets. We at American Rivers will continue to fight for all of the rivers across the country, whether in Minneapolis’ backyard or in the wilds of Alaska, that communities cherish, especially those that are a part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System.