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Bachmann's bridge: A double standard on spending, role of gov't?

AP

FILE - Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington in this Jan. 2011 file photo.

From NBC’s Kevin Hurd
Congresswoman and possible 2012 presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) introduced legislation Tuesday that would approve construction of a new four-lane bridge that would replace a smaller bridge connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The span connects the two states over the St. Croix River, known for its scenic value. But a federal law, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, prevents the new four-lane bridge from being built over the protected river. Bachmann and Duffy are looking to Congress for an exception so a new bridge can be built.

But the project is catching some fire from critics, not just on its environmental impact, but its $640 million price tag.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a coalition of environmental and social-action groups suggested in a letter last month to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) that building a more modest bridge would reduce harm to the river, divert traffic, and "save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."  

Bachmann -- a Tea Party star, who is known for calling out large government spending -- is proposing this bill for a second time. She failed to gain a co-sponsor for it last year. Her office told First Read in a statement (the full statement is below), in part, “The 80-year-old lift bridge doesn’t have much life left in it. It’s not a question of ‘if’ a bridge will be built as a replacement, but ‘when’ it will be built. The longer construction is delayed, the more the needed crossing will cost taxpayers. State and federal governments are not overreaching their obligation to their citizens by spending money on a vital river crossing which the area depends on.”

The Minneapolis Star Tribune also points out, "Bachmann, who has railed against federal earmarks, has also said transportation projects don't fall under that definition." It is worth noting the Minnesota connection to the bridge would be constructed in Oak Park Heights, which is less than five miles from Bachmann's home city of Stillwater.

In a statement on her U.S. House Web site, Bachmann tried to make the case for the project: "I urge my colleagues to support this bill, so that the citizens of Minnesota and Wisconsin can safely cross the St. Croix River. These citizens count on their elected officials to recognize the need for infrastructure and my bill responds to their pleas for a new crossing." 

That does not seem to jive with the message Bachmann delivered in her Tea Party response to President Obama's State of the Union address. "After the $700 billion bailout, the trillion-dollar stimulus, and the massive budget bill with over 9,000 earmarks, many of you implored Washington to please stop spending money that we don't have,” she said. “But instead of cutting, we saw an unprecedented explosion of government spending and debt. It was unlike anything we have seen in the history of the country."

Denny Caneff, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, told this to the Star Trib: "Its expense and extravagance can't be defended, from an investment perspective, in the current fiscal crisis facing Wisconsin.”

Here’s the full response from Bachmann spokeswoman Becky Rogness:

The current, eighty-year-old bridge connects 18,000 commuters daily between downtown, historic Stillwater, Minnesota and western Wisconsin. This lift bridge has been considered “structurally deficient” and the area residents have been in line for a new bridge since the 1950s.

The area in question, the northern portion of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, was originally included in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Therefore, the National Park Service has to sign-off on all proposed plans. In 1995 the National Park Service gave its blessing to a four-lane river crossing but then in 1996 reversed its decision. Nearly a decade later, the National Park Service again gave the green-light to construction, and that decision is what Rep. Bachmann’s current bill cites to allow the project to move forward.

The proposed crossing has been the subject of numerous lawsuits by environmental groups who have continued to try to stall the bill over the years. Now the project is stalled again due to a 2010 NPS decision reversal.

Rep. Bachmann’s bill reads: To facilitate a proposed project in the Lower St. Croix Wild and Scenic River, and for other purposes. Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, Section 1. St. Croix River Crossing Project. Construction of a four-lane highway bridge over the Lower St. Croix River, in accordance with the Section 7 Evaluation issued by the National Park Service in October 2005, is hereby deemed to be consistent with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (16 U.S.C. 1271 et seq.).

As you can see, it does not provide funding for the project. Before environmental groups stalled this project in the courts, a new bridge was funded and ready to be built for $120 million. Now, the bridge cost has skyrocketed to a price tag of over $600 million. By holding up this project in the courts, these groups are directly responsible to the taxpayers for today’s cost. Instead of focusing on safety, job creation and the best interests of Minnesota, they are pushing their radical, political agenda.

The 80-year-old lift bridge doesn’t have much life left in it. It’s not a question of “if” a bridge will be built as a replacement, but “when” it will be built. The longer construction is delayed, the more the needed crossing will cost taxpayers. State and federal governments are not overreaching their obligation to their citizens by spending money on a vital river crossing which the area depends on.

Even though funding is outside the scope of her bill, Rep. Bachmann conferred with the Department of Transportation before it was introduced yesterday. According to the Federal Highway Administration within the DOT, Mn/DOT has bonding authority set aside and Wisconsin has provisions in their state law to allow bonding authority.

Simply put, Rep. Bachmann’s bill will clear the first hurdle to move the bridge construction forward; if it is not cleared, a discussion on funding is irrelevant.