Al Franken is Kinda Almost Entirely Wrong on the Stillwater Bridge

[This is the "ruined view" that Franken claims is the reason why this smaller bridge proposal  makes no sense.]

I've been thinking for some time about the 'non-partisan' politics of development. No matter what party you belong to, everyone seems to agree that classic 20th century suburban growth economics is a good thing. Big deal (freeway) transportation projects provide jobs by putting people to work while simultaneously feeding the real estate growth machine that connects to global finance capital.  Lots of political interests, on both sides of the aisle, can get behind that!

In particular, the Stillwater Bridge issue is a great example of how local political growth machines combine with union interests, development schemes, and frustration over traffic congestion to make a bad idea seem like common sense. It's crazy that an expensive, misguided, environmentally-damaging bridge to nowhere that will only encourage bad long-term investment decisions is one of the few (the only?) issues that both sides of our statewide political schism can agree about. Why is sprawl development bridging the canyonesque gap between Michele Bachmann and Al Franken? 

Well, Franken appeared on MPR the other day, and the topic of the Stillwater Bridge came up. I'll allow him to explain himself:
[Comment from “Bruce on Facebook." Bruce is someone who is annoyed about the bridge not being built yet. He says “as a Democrat I can’t believe I’m coming down on the side where I agree w/ Michele Bachmann and not with Betty McCollum. Can you explain that to me?"]

Senator Franken: This isn’t really a partisan issue I don’t think. I did… I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to this project until Governor Dayton met with Michelle on the bridge and said, let’s do this. And then Amy also agreed what we should do it.

And so... I just... I know that Vice President Mondale had been against it because he’d been author of the wild and scenic rivers act, and he felt that this might open the door to violating that act because the parks service has said that this bridge would violate that.

Now there is a provision written in it where congress can instruct the secretary, in this case the sec of the interior under whose jurisdiction this bridge is because in this case it’s the parks service that runs it the area, can instruct the secretary of transportation to say ‘we’re going to build a bridge’. That’s written into the law, so its not going to be open season on this law.

I studied this very intensely, and I came to the conclusion that the footprint of the bridge that is the preferred option by the community groups that met on this, that studying this, is probably the best footprint. It goes right past the enormous NSP, or Excel, smokestack. So it doesn’t, I don’t believe, ruin the wild and scenic nature of this.

I tried to explore with MN-DOT other alternatives, the "lower and slower bridge," as sometimes the nomenclature is, and there really wasn’t a there there. There was a bridge, a "three architects bridge" that the Sierra Club put forward that hadn’t been really considered by MNDOT. I pressed on them to do that, and they … there were a couple things wrong with it, one was that it completely obstructed the view of the bluffs for anybody in Stillwater, which if you’re ruining the wild and scenic nature of the thing, that really did it for Stillwater.

And secondly, it causes as much environmental damage, and needed as much mitigation, and essentially costs the same. And we’ve been dealing with this for about 30 years, and the longer we put this off, the more any bridge that we do is gonna cost. The bridge that is there now is 80 years old, and there’s backup of traffic. It’s a lift bridge, so when a boat comes under it they have to lift that bridge and stop traffic. And its 80 years old, and we can’t go with that.

It’s also a historical preservation bridge, so we can’t tear it up. so we’ve been… I’ve made the point that this is the exception that hopefully will prove the rule. I don’t think this will put the wild and scenic rivers act under… in open season on it.

Gary Eichten: Will the bridge actually be built in our lifetime? A bridge? Any bridge?

Senator Franken:  Yes, well, we’ve been trying to get it on…we tried to get it on the last omnibus package. I don’t want to… Boy, you talk omnibus package you sound like you’re really into the weeds in nomenclature of the congress, but we couldn’t get it in. But we did pass through, actually it's my committee, the energy and natural resources committee. We passed the authorization for the bridge. And the senate has passed it, I believe. Anyway we’re trying to get it into this bill and we couldn’t do it.

I actually talked to Michele on this. You know, about a month ago, while we were trying to get it into the omnibus package. And leader reed asked me to ask Michele about Speaker Boehner about it, and actually Michele and I had a great conversation. And it was a good three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, and she said, "you know what, this process, this is a good process. Whoever’s gonna be president has to go through this."
And so as much as I have problems with Michelle’s politics and her stance on certain things, I will say that her attitude to the whole caucus thing was pretty commendable.
A lot of other stuff she said, I didn’t… I disagree with.

Gary Eichten: So is that yes or no on whether or not a bridge will be built while we’re still alive?

Senator Franken: Uhh, yes. Well, that depends. You’re pretty old.

Gary Eichten: [Laughs geriatrically]

There's lots that's a bit off here, including a underestimation of the damaging environmental precedent. And that, except to talk about "the view," Franken doesn't really explain himself when he claims that the alternative "lower and slower" bridge concepts are flawed.
It's only hearsay, but I've heard from people who've talked with folks at MN-DOT who have admitted that there is in fact a "there there" when it comes to bridge alternatives for the Stillwater Bridge. In fact, as Chuck has pointed out repeatedly, the Stillwater Bridge is an "old economy project that won't die." It's based on assumptions about suburban growth that are ridiculously out of date, and meanwhile, the current traffic across the bridge is incredibly low for a project that would be the costliest bridge in state history.

Meanwhile, it represents a serious mis-allocation of resources. In an era of budget cuts at every level, we need to focus on maintaining existing infrastructure, not building more of it (for its own sake).  The current bridge proposal would connect a distant suburban small town with a bunch of Wisconsin farm fields for the cost of $700M. The MN-DOT bridge project as planned would inevitably lead to a tremendous amount of exurban development in the wrong places, in distant Wisconsin. It's an idea that only makes sense if you believe that $2 gas is right around the corner.

Al Franken should know that that's isn't going to happen. He's devoted his life to satirizing political folly. If he can't see this project for the bad idea that it is, nobody can.

[Ex-candidate Bachmann promising $2 gas, streets paved with gold.]

Update: This just in. The Senate has officially passed the bill. Via MPR:

The bill, sponsored by DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar, passed the Senate with no debate under a procedure known as unanimous consent that is used for legislation considered uncontroversial.

The legislation grants an exemption to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that protects the St. Croix. The bill authorizes a four-lane replacement bridge south of Stillwater near the town of Oak Park Heights.


One of the possible holdups in the House is the opposition of DFL Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, who argue the cost of the project is excessive and say a smaller bridge would suffice.

"We need to find a common sense compromise because a $700 million bridge across the St. Croix River is bad fiscal policy, bad transportation policy, and bad environmental policy," said McCollum in a written statement.

 I'd say that the chances of this bridge not getting built are about the same as a huge taxpayer-funded Vikings stadium not getting built. In other words, they are exceedingly slender.


Nathaniel said...

Right on!

Alex said...

Thanks Bill - you've inspired me to write to the Distinguished Satirist from Minnesota and explain that he should no longer expect my time and money because of his stance/lies on this issue.