GALLERY: At last, St. Croix Crossing opens to the public

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The long-awaited St. Croix Crossing bridge connecting Oak Park Heights, Minn., and the town of St. Joseph, Wis., opened to traffic at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 2. The 86-year-old historic Stillwater Lift Bridge will close to traffic at the same time.

State and local political dignitaries gathered to commemorate and honor those who played key roles in making the bridge a reality at a 10 a.m. ceremony on the western

Featured speakers included Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber, St. Joseph Town Chair Tom Spaniol, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin Congressmen Sean Duffy and Ron Kind.

Though each had a different message, with Packers and Vikings quips thrown in, the theme running throughout was the same: collaboration.

“This project has been our bipartisan partnership from the very beginning,” Dayton said about working with Walker. “We agreed to just do it and we did.”

That was followed by a joking promise that Minnesota would immediately begin work on a toll booth on the Oak Park Heights side of the bridge, charging double to motorists with Packers decals on their vehicles.

Walker framed the project as a true example of cooperation between federal and local governments, the public and private sectors, and neighboring states. As he thanked everyone for their hard work, he saluted the late Kitty Rhoades, who was serving as secretary of Wisconsin Department of Health Services at the time of her death in 2016 at the age of 65. She was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly’s 30th District in 1998 and served through 2010.

“Kitty Rhoades is looking down from heaven and provided us the nice weather today,” Walker said.

Kind (D-La Crosse) listed three key factors considered in the building of the St. Croix Crossing: transportation needs, historic preservation and protection of a scenic and wild riverway.

His first public listening session after being elected to Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District in 1997 focused on the need for a new Stillwater Bridge. He recalled his quick learning curve after hearing comments from a packed auditorium. Fast forward two decades.

“It’s a beautiful day for a beautiful bridge dedication and not a moment too soon,” said Kind.

During Duffy’s remarks, he asked New Richmond-area resident John D. Soderberg, the man credited for shepherding the St. Croix River Crossing project from the beginning and through innumerable struggles, to stand up.

Soderberg was a member of the 28-person federally mediated stakeholders coalition, which was responsible for forging the many compromises it took to make the bridge a reality. The debates about the project ended several years ago when Congress and former President Barack Obama approved an exemption to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act which allowed the new bridge to be built.

The St. Croix County Board proclaimed Wednesday, Aug. 2, as John D. Soderberg Day. Soderberg was honored at a reception following the ribbon cutting ceremony at Gibby’s Lanes in New Richmond.

As the ceremony drew to a close and the giant scissors sliced through the ribbon, McComber read a statement from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who said: “This project stands out as an example of what we can accomplish when we put politics aside and focus on the needs of the people.”

Duffy recalled walking the Stillwater Lift Bridge with Klobuchar five years ago and their incredulity at its state of disrepair. “We were picking up screws,” he said.

He alluded to the 10th anniversary of the collapse of the 35W bridge by noting that Minnesotans appreciated the importance of a strong, structurally sound bridge.

Terry Zoller, construction manager for the bridge project and a retiring MNDot employee, accepted congratulations from friends and colleagues. The dedication ceremony was his last day of work.

“It took a long time to get to this point,” he said.

He won’t be far, however. Zoller said he can see the bridge from his house in Stillwater.

Bridge project timeline

The St. Croix Crossing bridge is a project more than 45 years in the making. Discussions about a new bridge started nearly half a century ago, but the difficulties of developing a new bridge over the national scenic riverway of the St. Croix proved to be a challenge. Follow the development of the bridge from approval to opening below.

March 1, 2011 - Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) introduced legislation to the U.S. House of Representatives for the project.

May 26, 2011 - Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced legislation that authorizes the project to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 23, 2012 - The U.S. Senate approves the project.

March 1, 2012 - The U.S. House of Representatives approves the project.

March 14, 2012 - President Barack Obama signs legislation authorizing the project.

May 28, 2013 - Project broke ground.

May 19, 2015 - First bridge segment put in position in the river. The bridge is made up of 650 segments.

September 2015 - Completion date is delayed from expected fall 2016 opening.

January 6,  2016 - New completion date is set for fall 2017 due to workforce shortages, equipment failures and weather issues.

May 2016 - Two large ringer cranes are brought in to help with construction on the project.

Aug. 3, 2016 - Final pre-cast segment completed.

Feb. 10, 2017 - Final closure pour completed, connecting each pier location across the bridge. When they were put in place, the segments had a two-foot gap between them.

Aug. 2, 2017 - With a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the bridge finally opened.

Reporters Rebecca Mariscal, Mike Longaecker, William Loeffler and Thomas Lindfors contributed to this report.