Friday, February 17, 2012

More truth, less 'truthiness' needed in St. Croix River Boondoggle Bridge debate

While Michele Bachmann and Mark Dayton would have you
believe the Stillwater Lift Bridge is ready to fall into the
St. Croix, MnDOT says it's safe.

By Karl Bremer

  1. truthiness
The quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.

Origin: Stephen Colbert, "The Colbert Report," 2005

Truthiness has been the hallmark of the pimps peddling legislation to allow construction of a $700 million freeway bridge across the federally protected St. Croix River. One would expect a certain amount of truthiness from lobbyists for this boondoggle. But members of Congress--specifically Michele Bachmann and her Wisconsin colleagues--now have employed the tactic in an effort to railroad a House vote through as a “noncontroversial” measure. Minnesota’s two Democratic senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, passed the Senate version of this legislation on a curiously “noncontroversial” voice vote.

The most insidious to date is the recent attempt by Bachmann to peddle her Boondoggle Bridge as a modest $292 million project in a recent "Dear Colleague" letter to members of Congress.

“The St. Croix River Crossing Project includes a new $292 million bridge, which costs less per square foot than the Interstate 35W bridge replacement outside of the Twin Cities,” Bachmann wrote in the letter, which was published in an article for Roll Call and co-authored by Wisconsin Republican Sean Duffy and Democrats Ron Kind and Tammy Baldwin.

That’s simply a lie. This so-called St. Croix River Bridge Crossing Project cannot be built for $292 million, yet that is the only dollar amount that Bachmann and her co-authors cite in the arm-twisting letter to their colleagues. This entire project has a total cost estimate of $574 million to $690 million that still does not include many other ancillary costs associated with the bridge, such as $20 million in utility work for Oak Park Heights, the city where the bridge will lie.

But Bachmann’s never been one to let facts get in the way of her arguments.

So let’s examine Bachmann’s “Dear Colleague” letter and other public pronouncements for further truthiness:

  • $292 million bridge cost.

If only that were true. Unfortunately, Bachmann’s cost is just for the actual bridge portion in the river. She conveniently leaves out the remaining $282-$388 million for Highway 36 construction, Minnesota and Wisconsin approaches, engineering, right of way, environmental mitigation and contingency/risk. Those numbers aren’t from some radical environmentalists either. Those are from MnDOT’s 2011 “Annual Project Summary Report.”

  • Bachmann plays on the fear factor by describing the existing Stillwater bridge as “structurally deficient, functionally obsolete and fracture critical.”

Here’s what MnDOT has to say about “structurally deficient” in its April 2011 “Condition Summary”:

“The fact that a bridge is structurally deficient does not imply that it is unsafe. The classification of structurally deficient is used to determine eligibility for federal bridge replacement or rehabilitation funding. The primary reason the lift bridge is termed “structurally deficient” is because it is subject to flooding that can close the crossing.”

Closing a bridge due to flooding carries a whole different meaning than implying that it’s unsafe to drive on at any time.

  • So what does MnDOT have to say about “functionally obsolete?”
 “The classification functionally obsolete is also used as a justification for federal bridge replacement or rehabilitation funding. Functional obsolete bridges are not inherently unsafe. It does mean that the bridge does not meet the minimum federal clearance requirements for a new bridge.”

Once again, Bachmann takes a term used to justify federal funding for a project—dare we say an earmark—and twists it to suggest that it describes a bridge unsafe for traffic.

  • And then there’s “fracture critical,” the latest favorite term used to describe the Stillwater Lift Bridge by the Chicken Little Boondoggle Bridge proponents who publicly proclaim that they drive across the lift bridge with their doors and windows open.

Says MnDOT in its April 2011 “Condition Summary”: The lift bridge is a fracture-critical bridge because there are two main trusses that support each span of the bridge; if one of these trusses were to fail the span could collapse. The classification of fracture critical does not mean the bridge is inherently unsafe.

So “fracture critical” simply describes the bridge design and has nothing at all to do with its current condition.

  • “The safety rating of the bridge is an astounding 32.8 on a scale of 100, warranting several structural safety concerns,” Bachmann claims.

Bachmann is actually referring to the bridge’s “sufficiency rating,” not safety rating. According to MnDOT, “a bridge’s sufficiency rating is a number that is frequently misunderstood and misused. It is a calculated numerical value that is based on a number of factors and then used to determine eligibility for federal funding.” The “structural safety concerns “ Bachmann cites were taken into consideration by MnDOT when determining its sufficiency rating.

  • Bachmann says the bridge currently sees about 18,200 vehicle crossings per day and then claims that “by 2030, an estimated 48,000 vehicles per day would need to be driving over the bridge.”

That one almost sends the BS meter off the charts. MnDOT’s own figures predict “average daily vehicle traffic on the river crossing of 23,100 at an average vehicle occupancy of 1.30 persons per vehicle by the year 2030 if no new St. Croix River crossing is built, no cross-river modal alternatives are established, and Minnesota and Wisconsin projected development and programmed roadway improvements occur as planned. 

  • “If no bridge is built, already-lengthy traffic wait time is expected to double,” Bachmann states.

What Bachmann fails to mention is that wait times are largely due to frequent bridge lifts during peak summer periods. Yet none of the parties involved have asked the Coast Guard, which controls lift bridge schedules, to consider lowering the frequency of lifts to lower traffic delays commensurately.

  • “We also have the Obama Administration on board,” Bachmann told a tv audience recently.

But when Congresswoman Betty McCollum asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar about that during a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior hearing last week, it was news to him.

“That is not my understanding. My understanding is that (Transportation) Secretary (Ray) LaHood and I offered to work with the Congressional delegation from both states to see whether we could find a common ground based on the alternative, which you have proposed, and the alternative other members of the congressional delegation have proposed.”

  • “The existing bridge cannot be removed or replaced because of its placement on the National Registry of Historic Places,” Bachman told her colleagues, “so a new bridge must be built — and soon.”

Not true again, according to Salazar’s response to McCollum when she asked him whether the old lift bridge can be taken out.

“I think it is probably possible. It may take an act of Congress, and I don’t know what else, but there are probably ways in which it can be done although it obviously would be a difficult climb,” Salazar replied.

Bachmann isn’t alone in the Minnesota congressional delegation in her truthiness on the Boondoggle Bridge over the St. Croix. Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, along with Governor Mark Dayton, have been equally disingenuous in leading this full-scale assault on the St. Croix and the Wild & Scenic Rivers System.

It’s time to take Secretary Lahood and Salazar up on their offers to bring the two sides together to hammer out a compromise, despite Bachmann’s contention that their offers are “not productive and are only meant to delay the construction” of her Boondoggle Bridge.

At that time, maybe we can start on a level playing field of the truth, and leave the truthiness to the Colbert Report.

Photo by Karl Bremer.


  1. So the bridge that Bachmann and the folks she's bought off with promi$e$ of job$ say is falling apart is actually much safer than the dozens of Minnesota bridges that MnDOT would love to fix but can't because this thing is sucking up all the cash?

    I'm shocked, shocked, I tell you!

  2. "Yet none of the parties involved have asked the Coast Guard, which controls lift bridge schedules, to consider lowering the frequency of lifts to lower traffic delays commensurately."

    The better question is why do lifts at all?

    The only reason the Coast Guard is required to, is the eight foot channel that ends one thousand feet upstream from the bridge. Ninety percent of all lifts are for Dick Anderson's tour boats, and that can be confirmed by a reading of the Bridge Tenders logs.

  3. Thank you for clarifying the words used by engineers. They use words that are generally meant to frighten people. I know that these bridges can be worked and repaired for a lot less money. Being on the National Register provides no protections, SHPO's can evaluate and destroy at will all of our historic bridges if they want. Section 106 process just means they have to stop and look at it. It is time for engineers to use words that people can understand to make credible decisions.

    Thanks Karl.

    Julie Bowers
    Workin' Bridges

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