Bachmann’s local bridge project could draw criticism from Republican rivals

Bachmann’s local bridge project could draw criticism from Republican rivals

Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannJuan Williams: The GOP has divided America Bachmann praises Trump as man of faith Tom Petty dies at 66 MORE (R-Minn.) is pushing a $690 million local transportation project that has raised questions from government-waste watchdogs and could become a target in the GOP presidential primary.

Bachmann has sponsored legislation to authorize the construction of a four-lane bridge that would connect Stillwater, a town of about 20,000 people in her district, to the unincorporated township of Houlton, across the St. Croix River.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that opposes wasteful federal projects, has panned the legislation as too costly, as have other critics.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who represents a neighboring district, calls it “fiscally irresponsible.”

The project would cost between $610 million and $690 million, according to a congressional aide. The Minnesota Department of Transportation puts the price tag at $643 million.

The state transportation agency said $292 million of that total will go to build the new bridge, and the rest to upgrade surrounding infrastructure and tailor the project to scenic and recreation needs. It would be paid for by a mix of federal and state funding.

Some critics mutter Bachmann’s plan is akin to the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” the $400-billion proposed bridge that former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) tried to build to Gravina Island, a small community off Alaska’s cost. 

Government-waste watchdogs are crying hypocrisy because Bachmann positioned herself as a leading critic of federal spending who voted against legislation to raise the debt limit earlier this month.

Bachmann said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” earlier this month that the federal government should re-prioritize its spending instead of adding to its debt load.

Critics say the presidential hopeful should back up her talk by opting for a less costly replacement to the lift bridge that now connects Stillwater and Houlton. 

“We’re opposed to that project because there’s a far, far cheaper alternative to the Stillwater bridge,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that opposes earmarks and government projects it deems wasteful.  

“Why are we spending hundreds of millions more than we need to when we can get a much cheaper alternative that does the same thing?” Ellis asked. “[Bachmann] said balancing the budget is easy, we just need to prioritize spending. [She] should look in the mirror. If [choosing a cheaper alternative] is not re-prioritizing spending, I don’t know what is.”

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, noted that more than 1,000 bridges need repairs in Minnesota.

“So one question is, Why does this one take priority over others?” he said.

Bachmann’s proposed legislation would authorize the new four-lane bridge and exempt it from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which has blocked the major construction project.

A spokeswoman for Bachmann said the cheaper alternative touted by critics would quickly become obsolete due to growing traffic needs.

“Congresswoman Bachmann doesn’t want to see a bridge built that is obsolete before it’s completed,” Becky Rogness said.

Kevin Gutknecht, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the project is nothing akin to the “Bridge to Nowhere.”

“Stillwater is really a suburb of the Twin Cities, the biggest city in the Midwest area to the west of Chicago,” he said. “[The bridge] is to serve a much larger travel shed [than the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’].”

The controversial bill is one of the few pieces of legislation sponsored by Bachmann that has attracted Democratic support.

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A local coalition, the Sensible Stillwater Bridge Partnership, wants a cheaper alternative that would not require hundreds of millions of dollars worth of additional infrastructure upgrades. At a Senate hearing last month, Roger Tomten, a member of the coalition, proposed a plan costing less than $300 million.

“Construction of this bridge could be completed in the same timeframe as the big freeway-style bridge,” he said in testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks.

Klobuchar told The Hill in an interview Friday that the $643 million project is in the best interests of her state.

She said it would take years to win regulatory approval for an alternative bridge and questioned the claim that it would cost less than $300 million. 

“I represent the whole state,” she said. “I’ve weighed all those things, and the major issue is we need a new bridge. Don’t believe what they say about the cost of this new bridge. The architect alone is allowed to pick out a number.”

Klobuchar disputes concern that a major bridge expansion would cause traffic backups in McCollum’s district, another criticism of the project.

She said failure to move forward with the bridge immediately would cause federal and state funding set aside for the project to expire.

The debate has created a rift between Minnesota’s current Senate delegation and former Vice President Walter Mondale, the state’s most famous living Democratic politician. Mondale, a champion of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, opposes the plan endorsed by Klobuchar, Franken and Bachmann.

Gutknecht, the state Transportation Department spokesman, said the state government has done an extensive study, including an environmental impact statement.

“This is the option to have the least effect on the environment,” Gutknecht said. “This is the alternative that is best matched to the traffic needs and [limits] the costs to the environment.”