The existing Stillwater Lift Bridge connects Stillwater, Minnesota, and St. Joseph, Wisconsin. Mn/DOT has predicted increased vehicular traffic volumes that could increase average delay, queue lengths, and daily hours of congestion 50 percent by the year 2030 if a new river crossing is not built. Photo courtesy of Mn/DOT.
Constructed in 1931, the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge connects the towns of Stillwater, Minnesota, and St. Joseph, Wisconsin, over the St. Croix River. With increased tourism and economic growth in the region over the past few decades, the bridge has become increasingly congested on both sides. As early as the 1970s, a replacement bridge near Stillwater was considered but not pursued due to a lack of funding. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT), Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) began looking at options for a new or expanded river crossing. The proposed recommendations for bridge crossing alternatives failed because of differing stakeholder opinions concerning project impacts on notable resources. Some stakeholders, looking to minimize impacts to the St. Croix River, wanted the existing bridge to be completely removed and replaced. Other stakeholders, concerned with preservation issues, called for a new bridge to be built downstream, keeping the original Stillwater Lift Bridge as a cultural and historic resource.
In 1995, Mn/DOT, WisDOT, and FHWA agreed to build a new bridge south of the existing bridge and completed a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and FHWA issued a Record of Decision (ROD). The National Park Service, however, concluded that the project would have a direct and adverse effect on the St. Croix River, a Federally designated National Wild and Scenic River. Therefore, federal permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the U.S. Coast Guard were not issued. Mn/DOT, WisDOT, and FHWA had reached an impasse in identifying a feasible bridge crossing. In hopes of moving forward, they looked to an outside organization for a solution.
The Challenge of Rich Environmental,
Historic, and Cultural Resources
The rich environmental, historic, and cultural resources surrounding the Stillwater Lift Bridge presented a challenge in reaching consensus on how to alleviate congestion at the river crossing. U.S. Congress had designated the St. Croix River a National Wild and Scenic River because of its scenic, recreational, and geologic values. Several buildings within the Stillwater area, including the downtown itself, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), as Stillwater is known as "the birthplace of Minnesota." The Stillwater Lift Bridge is included on the NRHP because of its innovative use of engineering in the early twentieth century. Additionally, the river and surrounding ecosystems support a variety of wildlife and aquatic species, including several on the threatened and endangered species list, such as the Higgins eye mussel, winged mapleleaf mussel, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and osprey. Given the importance of these resources and the involvement of many special interest groups, a key project challenge was securing agreement from all of the stakeholders.
Tackling the Issues Using Alternative Dispute Resolution
To move toward a solution, FHWA enlisted the assistance of the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution (USIECR) to assess the problem. USIECR produced a conflict assessment report, with one of the recommendations from the report encouraging the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), a process in which a neutral third party helps to resolve disputes using various techniques to reach a resolution acceptable to the parties. ADR was used in this situation to help Federal, state, local, public, and private stakeholders work together and agree on a solution to the transportation problem while integrating environmental, cultural, economic, and social considerations.
One of the first steps in the ADR process was to assemble all of the major interest groups into one large stakeholder group. Stakeholders represented 7 Federal agencies, 6 state agencies, 4 local governments, and 11 private advocacy groups (see sidebar). Stakeholders adopted an "operating agreement" outlining the roles of certain stakeholders and the purpose of the problem-solving process, including provisions to:
- Facilitate a common understanding of the transportation, environmental, and historic preservation issues between government and nongovernment stakeholders.
- Define various solutions to these issues by exploring the advantages and disadvantages.
- Arrive, if possible, at a consensus.
- If full-group consensus proved impossible, reach an agreement among the core agencies with regulatory authority.
By agreeing to uphold the operating agreement, the stakeholders committed to hearing each other equally and fairly during discussions.
The use of a facilitator was another reason that stakeholders were able to successfully discuss the issues and eventually negotiate agreements. Stakeholders, FHWA, the DOTs, and USIECR jointly selected a facilitator from The Keystone Center, a non-profit organization. The facilitator provided neutrality within the group, allowing all stakeholders the same level of participation, and gave them an impartial outlet for identifying concerns.
The Stakeholder Group for the Stillwater Lift Bridge project included:
- National Park Service
- Federal Highway Administration
- US Army Corps of Engineers
- US Coast Guard
- US Environmental Protection Agency
- US Fish and Wildlife Service
- Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
- Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
- Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office
- Minnesota Department of Transportation
- Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
- Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office
- Wisconsin Department of Transportation
- Town of St. Joseph
- St. Croix County Highway Commission
- City of Stillwater
- City of Oak Park Heights
- Sierra Club
- New St. Croix Bridge Coalition
- Preservation Alliance of Minnesota
- Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
- Stillwater Heritage Preservation Commission
- St. Croix River Association
- Friends of the St. Croix
- Stillwater Area Chamber of Commerce
- St. Croix Alliance for an Interstate Bridge
- Stillwater Lift Bridge Association
- Western Wisconsin Realtors Association
The ADR process also addressed how stakeholders could work within the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) timelines. To avoid unnecessarily extending timelines and to ensure that decisions made during the NEPA process were not changed in subsequent reviews, the stakeholder review process was aligned with the project's NEPA review process. This included project scoping, defining the purpose and need, development of alternatives, and preparation and review of environmental documents. Stakeholders also actively participated in public outreach. The entire supplemental NEPA process was concluded in 44 months.
Successful Results — Satisfied Stakeholders
As a result of the ADR process and three years of negotiations and meetings, a final design for a new river crossing was identified and a Supplemental Final EIS was issued in June 2006, satisfying most of the stakeholders' original concerns about the project. A design for a replacement bridge downriver from the Stillwater Lift Bridge was selected. The original Stillwater Lift Bridge would remain intact as a historic property to be used as a pedestrian and bicycle crossing. A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was created to address Section 106 issues and was signed by 20 parties. Three Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) were also established among stakeholders and addressed the implementation of riverway mitigation items, the implementation of growth management mitigation items, and the establishment of a Water Quality Management Advisory Committee. The MOA and three MOUs solidified agreements decided upon by the stakeholder group. Because the stakeholders put aside individual differences and focused on the larger picture, they were able to resolve concerns over environmental, historic, and cultural resources.
A long-lasting outcome of the stakeholder group's use of the ADR process was the trust gained among all of the involved parties. The controversy surrounding the Stillwater Lift Bridge had been ongoing for decades. As a result of continued involvement, the individual stakeholder groups brought their historic perspectives from their past involvement in the project to the negotiating table. The level of trust gained within the three years of meetings allowed the stakeholders to put their differences aside and work together to reach a solution.
For more information, visit the websites for Mn/DOT's St. Croix River Crossing Project, The Keystone Center, and the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution.
FHWA Minnesota Division
380 Jackson Street
Galtier Plaza, Suite 500
St. Paul, MN 55101