OVER THE ST. CROIX RIVER NORTH OF HUDSON — There has been talk of a bridge here for decades.
But building an enormous span of concrete and steel over the pristine current of a National Scenic Riverway teeming with smallmouth bass, rare mussels, eagles above and stunning views, took time, legal battles, studies, politicking and what could end up being nearly $640 million.
After more than 45 years of planning and debate and three years of construction, the St. Croix Crossing bridge is nearing completion. The 5,074-foot-long expanse was supposed to open this fall, but construction delays have pushed the opening of the bridge — which will provide a more direct link between the Twin Cities metro area and northwest Wisconsin — to next fall.
For commuters, tourists and economic development officials on both sides of the St. Croix River, there’s also relief that the days are numbered for traffic jams and frustrating delays at a historic but antiquated vertical-lift bridge that connects the town of St. Joseph with Stillwater, Minnesota.
“It’s been almost like watching a football game. There’s been setbacks and a lot of ups and downs,” said Rob Kreibich, executive director of the 350-member New Richmond Chamber of Commerce. “It’s finally here. And the feedback we’re getting now has been just, ‘Wow.’ It’s not just your plain old bridge. And that’s what shocks people if they’ve read about it and not seen it. It’s spectacular.”
The 100-foot-wide bridge is a joint effort between the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of transportation. Including approaches and other road work, Wisconsin’s share is expected to cost between $240 million and $271 million. Minnesota’s bill ranges between $340 million and $375 million.
The project includes spending $14 million to convert the 1,050-foot vertical-lift bridge, constructed in 1931, into a pedestrian and bike crossing and integrating it into a 4.7-mile bike loop that uses both bridges. The new bridge will include a bike and pedestrian path and include pullouts for bikers and walkers to stop and take in the views up to 150 feet above the water.
The new bridge, one of the few extradosed designed bridges in the country, includes 10 pier columns, each about 360 feet tall. About 145 feet of the piers are below the water line and driven 120 feet through muck and bed rock. About 215 feet of each pier is above water, but with only 65 feet of column above the road surface. In addition, the columns between the bridge deck and waterline include see-through spaces that help reduce the profile of the columns to oncoming boaters.
“They’re supposed to almost mimic reeds,” said Tara Weiss, a project manager for the Wisconsin DOT. “The overall aesthetic look of the structure was very (important) for the stakeholders so it would blend in with the surrounding environment.”
The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was established in 1968 and protects 252 miles of the St. Croix River that borders Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Namekagon River in Wisconsin. The stretch of water is popular with boaters, canoers, kayakers and anglers. Large stretches of the St. Croix, which empties into the Mississippi River at Prescott, range from 20 feet to over 45 feet deep.
Because of the St. Croix’s designation as a National Scenic Riverway, more than $40 million of the bridge project’s cost has been earmarked for more than 30 environmental protection and mitigation projects.
The pilings from an old coal pier that served the nearby Excel Energy plant will be removed and more than 4,000 rare freshwater mussels, including Higgens eye, were relocated by divers to keep them out of harm’s way during construction.
Disturbance to the bluff on the Wisconsin side has been kept to a minimum due to its cultural, archaeological and scenic significance and its highly erodible soil, Weiss said.
Instead of clear-cutting the area where the bridge would meet the bluff, construction crews removed as few trees as possible. The result has the bridge merging with the canopy of the trees making it appear that the two have been together for years. A nearby eagle’s nest is being closely monitored on the Minnesota side.
“There’s a great emphasis on the environmental aspects to this project,” Weiss said. “There’s been a lot of eyes on it and there’s been a lot of public involvement.”
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But despite the environmental work and concern, the bridge is still a bridge and is comprised of massive amounts of concrete, steel and cable.
Precast concrete segments — 48 feet wide, 18 feet tall and 10 feet long — were manufactured about 30 miles to the south in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. The 988 pieces, each weighing 180 tons, were then shipped on barges to the construction site. Each trip up river took about eight hours.
Edward Kraemer & Sons in Plain and Lunda Construction Co. of Black River Falls are two of the primary contractors on the job. When it’s completed, the bridge will consist of about 563 million pounds of concrete and 42.3 million pounds of steel. The bridge also includes over 1,300 miles of cable strands that combine to make 5.2 miles of stay cables used to support the deck.
“An extradosed is a hybrid. It’s between a cable-stay bridge, which has a very high tower, and a bridge that doesn’t have any towers, like a cantilever bridge,” said John Sendor, a structural design engineer for the Wisconsin DOT. “The cables are able to bring more compression to keep the bridge together.”
Development of downtown Stillwater and northwestern Wisconsin’s draw as a tourist destination along with the growth in the Twin Cities area have all led to what is now 18,000 vehicles using the lift bridge each day.
A large Andersen Windows plant in Bayport, Minnesota, just south of Stillwater, is home to several employees who live in Wisconsin but who find the Interstate 94 bridge in Hudson too far out of the way.
Talk of a replacement bridge began in the early 1970s but a lack of funding, debate about locations, and court fights from the National Park Service and environmental groups stalled the project into the late 1990s.
Further studies and lawsuits followed but the project was ultimately given the green light in March of 2012. Over the last three years, the bridge has been a tourist attraction as visitors have used overlooks and taken boat tours to watch the progress.
The final stay cables were installed in late September and the final concrete bridge segment installed the first week of October. Much of the work this month is focused on filling in the 2-foot-wide gaps between concrete segments and completing the overlooks on the north side of the bridge. At the same time, crews are dismantling five custom-made overhead cranes on the bridge deck.
Below, tug and pontoon boats are used to shuttle workers, gear and construction supplies to the work site while barges are used to float massive Manitowoc cranes. Next year’s work will include the installation of lighting and painting the structure.
Kreibich, the chamber of commerce official in New Richmond, said his community is already seeing the affects of the bridge, even though it’s not yet finished.
The bridge project includes three miles of new four-lane roadway that will create a four-lane system from the Twin Cities to New Richmond with few stops and no delays over the river.
Commercial development in 2014 in New Richmond was $16.4 million and $24.6 million in 2015. Residential building projects in the city of nearly 10,000 people totaled $3.6 million in 2014 and $8.8 million in 2015, Kreibich said.
In 2007, the school district opened a $57 million new high school with room for 1,200 students and at the time had just 850 students but now has 927, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
“Everybody wants a piece of New Richmond. I think people are anticipating both residential and commercial growth,” Kreibich said.
“It’s actually going to become a reality. Some people have grown old waiting for that bridge to be built.”