STILLWATER - The weather matched the mood, as Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker met in Stillwater, Minn. for a joint press conference Friday afternoon.
The two governors were along the banks of the St. Croix River to conduct their own celebration in the wake of recent congressional approval of a bill that will help pave the way for an eventual new bridge connecting the two states.
As the celebration and press conference began, the clouds parted, the sky turned blue and the sun shined brightly. It was not unlike the recent history behind the proposal for a new Stillwater bridge, which has been plodding along for decades.
Supporters of a new span saw the political skies part on March 14 when President Barack Obama signed legislation that exempts the St. Croix River Crossing from the limitations of the National Scenic Riverway Act, the federal law that has helped to thwart previous efforts to build a replacement for the 81-year-old Stillwater Lift Bridge.
Those new bridge backers have been basking in the glow of that news ever since.
Dayton introduced Walker, thanking him for diligently working on the project.
"We're Democratic and Republic governors doing what we should be doing, which is working together for the best interest of our citizens," Dayton told the crowd.
Dayton turned his attention to area legislators, city and county officials and business leaders in attendance who have carried the torch of lobbying for a new bridge for many years.
"There are so many heroes here," Dayton said. "Despite whatever setbacks, you haven't given up. This is a remarkable moment that we're all here."
Walker, too, had nothing but praise for those who have continued to fight for a new crossing.
"A tremendous amount of work and dedication that was put into this project for many, many decades, I thought it was fitting for the two of us to not only celebrate but to say thank you," Walker told the crowd of about 200 people.
When the bridge opens, Walker suggested that the span be called "cooperation."
"This is a great example of crossing party lines and state lines to get something done," Walker said. "Thank you to all of you for never giving up, always staying focused."
Walker said the project is important to the region for a number of reasons - public safety, transportation efficiency and economic development.
"We couldn't be more thrilled," Walker said. "Both states DOTs have been working on this. We're ready to go."
Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki also thanked those who worked hard to accomplish the goal.
"All I really want to say is we got it done," he said, to applause from the crowd.
Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel said the bridge will be a great addition to the valley.
"There's a new energy in the valley," he said. "There's excitement and anticipation that can actually be felt. There's a renewed commitment to join forces and work together to make this the most successful, efficient, environmentally sensitive and best designed bridge that will grace our valley for many years to come."
Wisconsin State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls), who has been pushing for a new bridge for many years, said she was excited by the bi-partisan effort it took to make the bridge a reality.
A Stillwater native, Harsdorf said she recalls visiting her cousins in Osceola when she was young. The family often got stuck in traffic on the Stillwater bridge when returning home.
"It's long overdue," she said. "We're glad the day is here."
The project is expected to create upwards of 6,000 new jobs in the area.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation expects to begin foundation load testing in the coming weeks.
The project cost estimate is between $571 and $676 million. The most recent projection puts the cost at $626 million. Minnesota's share will be in the range of $315 million and $371 million. Wisconsin's share is estimated at between $256 million and $305 million.
Of the money slated for the bridge, Dayton noted, $400 million would be spent on payroll.
"That's $400 million in the pockets of Minnesotans and Wisconsinites who are going to be working," he said, "a lot of whom wouldn't be working otherwise. That's one of the really great benefits of this."
Once the bridge construction begins, which will likely be in early 2014, it will take three years to complete.
The major project goals include: restoring the Stillwater Lift Bridge and convert its use to a bicycle/pedestrian crossing; building a new bridge to increase traffic capacity between Minnesota and Wisconsin; constructing roadway approaches on both sides of the river; and protecting historic, cultural and environmental features along the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
Interested individuals can stay informed about the project by visiting www.mndot.gov/stcroixcrossing or the St. Croix Crossing Facebook page, attending open houses and signing up for subscription emails.