An Economic Comment on the Stillwater Bridge
August 29, 2011 2 Comments
Jason Scheppers writes in:
“Recently, Dr. Whitehead wrote regarding the Stillwater – St. Croix River Crossing. I have seen in your blog several mentions of the bridge and offer you the following economic comments:
I would recommend the following documents for any interested in the details of the current controversy: US House subcommittee hearing, Senate subcommittee Hearing, Record of Decision and US Court ruling vacating the National Park Service’s concurrence with the project.
I support Senators Klobuchar and Franken’s and Rep. Bachman’s right to follow the law which specifically called for override of the Scenic by-way by congress, if Congress deemed appropriate. The tremendously cumbersome process and triple flip-flopping by some federal agencies give significant cause to provide reasonable congressional relief.
But beyond the Congress’s right, the following shows that the economics constructing a new freeway bridge may not be as clear as suggested.
First, the existing bridge while currently rated in not so good condition and with load restrictions is not in any imminent state of collapse. It is also true that under build the new freeway bridge(s) would keep the existing bridge and make it a pedestrian and bicycle facility. The loading requirements for pedestrian facilities exceed those of vehicular loading due to possible densities of pedestrians during special events. The existing historic bridge is not going away.
Second, the I-94 Bridge is only 6 miles away from the current bridge. Attached are the Google directions for a path that goes over the existing bridge as compared to going over I-94, yielding 31 miles in 45 minutes, versus 34 miles in 46 minutes. The new route takes out the trip through Stillwater and straightens out some of the wiggles through Stillwater. I estimate that the time savings for the mean traveler is in the order of 10 minutes and 5 miles compared to the I35 route. Time valued at $15 per hour and cost of $0.40 per mile yields a total savings of $4.50. There actual has been a study done that found the revenue maximizing toll was $3.00. It found that the toll could cover only half the cost of the bridge.
Third, the cost benefit analysis provided in the Supplemental EIS had a very different take. It shows a 6.0 Benefits to Costs ratio. Call me old fashioned but if you can only generate enough toll revenue to pay for half of your project, it is hard to see how the B/C ratio could be greater than one. (There may indeed not be a toll on the new bridge, but the willingness to pay aspect of a toll illuminates the value of the facility.)
Fourth, the travel patterns of the residents of the area are highly dependent on what facilities are in place. Does the Minneapolis Regional model takes into account the natural barrier the river is to growth on the WI side of the St. Croix? The Toll study cited above assumed 2.0% traffic growth, but if you analyze the data in the FHWA vmt trends for Minnesota you will find an annual state wide traffic growth rate of 0.6% from 2004 to 2010. This implying that there is substantial risk to cover 50% of the costs with toll revenues. If this lower traffic growth rate were sustained over the length of the tolling not even 20% of the bridge could be financed.
So enough complaining, here are some things that I think would be reasonable. While the reports all document the danger, it is not the bridge itself where the DOTs are claiming most dangerous conditions. It is on the Minnesota side where the highway goes through the town. It is also the signals through town that impede the volume. The bridge can likely handle 18,000 vehicles a day in each direction without substantial delay. But looking at the route through
Stillwater, one possible explanation for the accidents is the on street parallel parking on this high volume road. Imagine the safeness of trying to Parallel Park during peak hour traffic.
The Supplemental EIS also discusses cut through traffic. Eliminating and compensating local business for the loss of close parking and reconfiguration of the lanes to allow some more volume is one solution. The City and MN DOT could also create one way pairs for the highway through town to allow for more traffic flow. The reality is the existence and texture of Stillwater is formed by its relationship to the river and the existing crossing. Operational improvements without the following pricing would likely significantly increase the traffic leaving the Stillwater residents with equally bad congestion in their town.
Changing the bridge to a non-motorized facility essentially changes the price for an auto to cross from zero to infinity. What if it was only changed to $5 and that it was a variable toll to address some of the Stillwater residents’ concerns about congestion. The congestion, I would guess is on Friday evenings in the summer when city dwellers rush to their weekend retreats. Such a toll reduces the traffic and also generates revenue to repair and maintain the existing bridge. The existing bridge is considered historic and historic for carrying cars across the St. Croix River. It seems the 4F work on the bridge did not respect the fact that the bridge’s vehicular history and the scenic views that were obtained by all the folks driving through Stillwater and across the bridge. To be scenic you need people to see the beauty. I would argue that removing motorized vehicles from the existing bridge is a direct and adverse impact to the scenic river and is not allowed unless otherwise approved by the US congress.
The value of the existing bridge has never been greater and capturing some of that value through tolls provides the best revenue stream to maintain the historic bridge and address its current deficiencies and pay for operational improvements on the approach roadways. I am an equal opportunity toller and encourage appropriate charges to the gondolas and sightseeing boats that pass under the lift bridge. Freight barges no longer utilize this stretch of the St. Croix. The bridge lift schedule should not be fixed but based on price. Rush hour lifts for tourists to pass under the bridge should be evaluated based on prices the “overs” versus “unders” are willing to pay. Are the pedestrians and bikers willing to pay to maintain the bridge? If motorized vehicles are prohibited, what are the implications to the very limited use the bridge will have during the November to March time frame? The reduced value of the bridge by eliminating the cars is the biggest threat to maintaining the historic structure. The current bridge also has the huge value of simply existing and not subject to the regulatory capture of the regulating agency for new structures.
The Stillwater lift bridge is a man-made bridge, historic and integral part of the scenic
river. Review of Google images of the Lower St. Croix River, show the lift bridge may be the most popular image per linear foot of river it occupies. Why would it not be possible to build (if needed) a bridge that would age gracefully and be equally accepted into the eco-system. The current unconditional discrimination against massiveness and man-made form denies the man- made massive existing historic lift bridge, the center piece of the scenic lower St. Croix River.
(Crossed the beautiful scenic lower St. Croix River twice in the past year (in a car))”