Capping decades of squabbling and legislative maneuvering, the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved legislation that will allow a new St. Croix River bridge to be built connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The House voted 339 to 80 in favor of legislation that exempts the proposed $700 million bridge at Stillwater, Minn., under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Senate approved the legislation in January. It now heads to President Barack Obama.
"I'm thrilled," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, the bill's sponsor in the House. "This is long overdue and this bridge is commonsense."
Elected officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin were closely monitoring the vote, which had broad, bipartisan support but also drew objections from a loose contingent of Democrats, fiscal hawks and environmental groups.
Rep. Betty McCollum, the DFL congresswoman who stands to inherit the bridge in a newly configured congressional district, has labeled it a waste of government money. Environmental groups have objected to the project, saying it will harm the river.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, originally written by former Sen. and Vice President Walter Mondale, was a landmark piece of environmental legislation designed to protect rivers. It requires congressional approval of certain types of construction around rivers.
Many Democrats, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the bill's Senate sponsor, joined with Republicans to champion the bridge. Others supporting the measure included Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken, a co-sponsor of Klobuchar's bill.
"Today is a victory for the residents and business along the St. Croix River Valley," Klobuchar said. "When it's for the good of your state, you put partisan differences aside."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also praised the efforts of both parties to pass the bill.
"This legislation was a top federal priority for my administration and is a great example of bipartisanship teamwork that will create thousands of jobs," Walker said. "The construction of this safer, better bridge will bring a welcome economic boost to the region."
Advocates of the bridge have said it is long overdue and will ease congestion in the St. Croix Valley while creating jobs and helping interstate commerce. They also say there are safety concerns: The Stillwater Bridge currently connecting the two is a lift-bridge built in 1931.
Opponents, led by McCollum, argue the bridge is too big, is a waste of government money and could harm the environment.
"Congress' passage of this $700 million bridge bill doesn't diminish its excessive cost, size, negative effect on Highway 36 traffic congestion, or its adverse impact on the St. Croix River," McCollum said in a statement on Thursday.
Others opposing the project included Rep. Keith Ellison, who said he understood the need to build an improved bridge but couldn't support a project this large, and Mondale who wrote lawmakers to say he worried about the effect it would have on the St. Croix and the precedent granting an exemption would set.
Environmental groups also bashed Thursday's vote.
"This bill sets a dangerous precedent for over 200 Wild and Scenic Rivers across the nation _ to push through the most expensive bridge in state history," said Margaret Levin, State Director of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.
Thursday's vote capped a frantic push to pass the legislation after Dayton warned Bachmann that he would redirect state funding if a vote wasn't held by March 15. The Senate passed the exemption unanimously in January.