Thursday, February 24, 2011

Could the Gateway Corridor help the St. Croix River bridge project?

Drat. I put the wrong date in my calendar, so I missed last night's open house for the Gateway Corridor held at the Union Depot. Another meeting happened in Woodbury tonight, and there will be meetings in Eau Claire and Hudson next week.

St. Croix River bridge plan (until 2010)
I'm fairly accustomed to seeing transit and rail projects sit around forever waiting for studies to be done, preventing anything from being built. Highways seem to get built without much fuss being made, though there are the occasional projects which get slowed down to a crawl. One example is the project to build a new bridge across the St. Croix River at Stillwater. The proposal going around for the past half-decade or so has been to build a high bridge on the southern edge of town extending from Minnesota State Highway 36. The bridge would take the road northeast and link up to Wisconsin Highways 35 and 64, blazing a new path a bit west of today's Highway 35. The main purpose of the new bridge would be to make it easier for people to get from Somerset and New Richmond into the Twin Cities.

Of course, this makes it a bit more clear why MN-36 currently stays a 4-lane divided highway (plus frontage roads) as it barrels right toward the edge of the river bluffs. This becomes a bit baffling for casual travelers, as they get funneled down the narrow MN-95 into downtown Stillwater, without any ability to turn around when traffic gets heavy.

Anyway, the National Park Service has jurisdiction over the St. Croix River valley (designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1972) and has twice prevented construction of a new bridge. The plans were rejected because the bridge "would have direct and adverse effects that cannot be avoided or eliminated" and "would fundamentally change the scenic qualities that [previously] existed", according to the brief description on the NPS site. I'm a bit surprised that the NPS would act so forcefully against the bridge, though there had been a decision to allow it back in 2005 (which got overturned by a federal judge).

Like many others, I have trouble believing that a 4-lane bridge capable of carrying traffic at 65 mph (or more) is really necessary when the city currently gets by with an aging 2-lane lift bridge. It's certainly a slow drive on many days, but that's mostly due to a series of traffic lights (and a lot of people making left turns) on the Minnesota side.

In the past, I've heard that one of the NPS's complaints was that they didn't want to see any additional bridges built in the area—if a new one comes in, an old one must go. I've had a thought that it might be worthwhile to try rerouting the current Union Pacific rail line across the new bridge, if it ever gets built. Mn/DOT already expressed their desire to build regional rail along the route to Eau Claire as part of the 20-year State Rail Plan, and the route would be a very reasonable one for a high-speed rail link to Chicago. Currently, the UP tracks snake north and south on the Minnesota side to find an acceptable gradient down to the valley floor, which makes the route fairly slow. The trains currently cross in Hudson, though they get pretty close to the proposed path of the new bridge before descending.

A combined highway/rail bridge would allow the old rail bridge in Hudson to be removed, possibly straightening out the line a bit. This could allow the old lift bridge to continue operating into downtown Stillwater. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out a very good routing on the Wisconsin side. Rerouting the line would probably require construction of 10 to 12 miles of new rail, and an additional large rail bridge would need to be built to cross the Willow River on the north side of Hudson. The only reasonable paths I could find that avoided developed land (albeit very low density housing) were forced to go through Willow River State Park and skipped past the center of Hudson. I suppose that highlights a problem with the Gateway Corridor: Planners will have to choose whether they want to serve either Stillwater or Hudson—it will be very difficult to try and serve both cities.

Anyway, regardless of whether the rails get rerouted, I think it would be best for the new highway bridge to be restricted to two lanes—particularly if the old lift bridge (or a new bridge in the same spot) could be retained. Of course, drivers coming in on the 4-lane Highway 36 through Stillwater would not be happy to get funneled down a 2-lane bridge. It would be good for Stillwater if the other entrances to the city on County Road 5, Greeley Street, Osgood Avenue, and Beach Road were more heavily promoted through good signage.

As I said earlier, casual travelers often just get funneled into MN-95 instead of taking these other roads through neighborhoods to get into the center of town. I might even go so far as to shut down the main lanes of MN-36 and force all of the traffic onto the frontage roads instead, which would probably retain about the same capacity as there is now. The 175-foot gap between the two would be a bit narrow, but could be creatively redeveloped.

Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps the best option would be to remove the current MN-36 from Highway 5 to the river, reroute cars along the frontage roads, and plop a rail line in the old highway right-of-way.

View Stillwater Bridge in a larger map

Well, just a thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment