STILLWATER, Minn. (WCCO) — The City of Stillwater says its historic lift bridge has reached its final chapter over the St. Croix River. The city is planning to file a lawsuit that would force the closure of the bridge, which was built in 1931.
Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki says he was forced to make a drastic decision after a recent interview with the History Channel.
“They have a series apparently on crumbling infrastructure in the U.S,” said Harycki. He says as part of the show, a private Twin Cities bridge inspector toured the bridge and raised red flags.
“Really, it scared the heck out of me. I called my wife up right away and said don’t ever go across that bridge again,” said Harycki. He says problems began when he went under the bridge as part of a tour for the show.
“We went down there and on top of the ice, there was an inch of cement dust on top of the ice,” said Harycki, who says he had no other choice when he also saw structural problems, bowing and rusted girders.
“Basically, we’ve instructed our city attorney to prepare a lawsuit to get the bridge closed,” said Harycki. The city of Stillwater also passed a resolution last month to try and close the bridge.
City Attorney Doug Magnusson says he is researching costs and outlining a lawsuit that will likely involve the state and federal government, arguing the operation of the bridge violates the National Wild and Scenic Water Act.
“It’s an interesting twist. We will have to see the specifics of it,” said Adam Josephson, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s east area manager. Josephson says his agency has long been rallying for a new bridge down river.
MnDOT engineers say the bridge is safe and passed an inspection last June with a 33 out of 100 sufficiency rating. It will be re-inspected again this summer. MnDOT is planning to make $3 million in repairs to the bridge in the fall of 2012, which will close it for two to three months while crews make electrical, mechanical and steel upgrades.
“The bridge serves almost 20,000 cars a day and we will do whatever we can to keep it open and operating,” said Josephson. “It is safe. If you go under there, again, it’s an old bridge, you will see rust, a lot of the members are rusty, paint system has bubbled in certain areas, and you may see small holes in certain areas.”
The agency says a new bridge would solve these problems, and ease the city’s concerns about too many cars going through downtown. But, MnDOT’s project was stopped in federal court.
“A recent ruling by the National Park Service has stopped the construction of the new project, and we are now looking to Congress,” said Josephson. “Without congressional action, the project is at a standstill right now.”
MnDOT’s plans for a new bridge would have turned the Stillwater Lift Bridge into a pedestrian-only bridge.
It’s a disappointment to downtown business owners like Chuck Dougherty, who owns and operates the Water Street Inn near the bridge.
“We need a new bridge built, this is going to fall apart if we keep using this the way it is being used right now,” said Dougherty. “Just look out the window, 20,000 cars a day, it wasn’t built for that.”
“We are running an interstate through a historic downtown, we want the traffic out of the town,” said Mayor Harycki. “It’s not a MnDOT issue, it’s a political issue, right now it rests in the House and Senate and in Washington.
He says city of Stillwater will be discussing more about this lawsuit at their next council meeting in March.
“I don’t know if it’s ever been done before,” said Mayor Harycki, who remains convinced a lawsuit is his last option. He also plans to show legislators the problems on the bridge.
“It’s not a matter of if it will come down, it’s a matter of when it will come down.”