A new boat launch on the St. Croix River in Oak Park Heights can’t come soon enough for Bob Steinmetz.
“I am 79 years old. My fishing buddies and I don’t have many more years to wait,” said Steinmetz, of Houlton, Wis., whose top fishing highlight came in 1988, when he caught a 35-pound muskie in the St. Croix. “We sure could have used the landing during this COVID-19 virus where being in the outdoors is recommended.”
Next year, officials say, his wait will be over.
Instead of having to haul his 18-foot Lund fishing boat to Stillwater, Bayport or Hudson to launch, he’ll have an option 10 minutes from his front door — right under the new St. Croix River bridge.
As part of the mitigation package to offset the environmental effects of the new bridge, the Minnesota Department of Transportation allocated $1.2 million for the creation of a public water access in Oak Park Heights just downstream of the bridge. The boat launch is the last of almost 50 mitigation items to be completed; the new bridge opened on August 2, 2017.
More than $50 million — or about 7 percent of the project’s $693 million cost — went toward mitigation, said Todd Clarkowski, the former St. Croix Crossing project coordinator who now serves as MnDOT’s operations division portfolio manager. Among them: removal of a barge-unloading facility from the river; restoration of the river bluff; and the construction of the 4.7-mile Loop Trail, a bicycle and walking trail that connects Minnesota and Wisconsin via the Stillwater Lift Bridge and the new bridge.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has worked for more than 30 years to expand public access on the St. Croix, said Kent Skaar, senior project manager for acquisition and development for the DNR’s parks and trails division. The only facilities the DNR operates on the river are the St. Croix Boomsite Public Access in Stillwater and the launches at William O’Brien and Interstate state parks; the rest of the boat launches are local and/or private.
Three factors make the Oak Park Heights location ideal for a boat launch: deep water, minimal current and easy access to Minnesota 36 and Minnesota 95, Skaar said.
MnDOT transferred the money for the boat launch to the DNR in 2013. Plans originally called for the boat launch to open for public use in the fall of 2019 or spring 2020.
SITE POSED CHALLENGES
But officials have had difficulty resolving issues concerning access to the site and road maintenance. The road leading to the site is a private access road that serves the St. Croix Valley Wastewater Treatment Facility; the road also crosses a Union Pacific railroad track.
The railroad tracks are a spur used to assemble and disassemble freight trains filled with coal going to Xcel Energy’s Allen S. King plant, according to Skaar. Union Pacific officials have requested that the road to the boat launch be moved off railroad land to property owned by the Metropolitan Council and MnDOT.
“It’s an ongoing conversation,” he said. “But they have all been supportive of the public access, and no objections have been raised. It’s just a matter of getting these last things done. Sometimes the minutest things are the most difficult to complete.”
The current railroad crossing has been previously permitted as a private crossing, and MnDOT has a limited-use maintenance permit for use of a short segment of the roadway for bridge maintenance, Skaar said. No permits or easements have been issued to date by Union Pacific “specific to the use of (its) land for the proposed public water access,” he added.
A Union Pacific spokesman said railroad officials are “aware of the project and (are) in discussions with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.” He declined further comment.
OPEN FOR SPRING 2022
Plans call for the double-ramp boat launch, which will feature 35 boat-trailer parking slots, to be built this fall and open for public use in the spring of 2022.
“Based on our experience at other sites, I would expect this to be full all the time,” Skaar said. “It’s going to be a popular destination.”
The 35 angled parking slots are the maximum number that will fit.
Overnight parking will be allowed, but extended stays will not. Portable toilets will be provided, but there will be no trash cans. Boaters will be expected to “pack it in, pack it out,” Skaar said.
The boat launch will include a designated aquatic-invasive-species “clean in, clean out” removal area and a bin for disposal of aquatic plants and unwanted bait.
Oak Park Heights City Administrator Eric Johnson said residents are looking forward to having a boat launch in the city. “Will it be a nice asset for our community? Absolutely,” he said. “The more people who can get out on the river, the better.”
A PERFECT LOCATION
Steinmetz hopes to be first in line.
He said putting in at the Boomsite in Stillwater can be difficult because “you have to walk down the hill, and it’s very shallow there, and then you have to go through town, and it all takes time.”
There are fees to pay at the boat launches in Hudson and Bayport, and other issues. “You have to go early in the morning at Hudson, or it’s too crowded,” he said. “In Bayport, you have to walk three full blocks, and you have to leave your equipment (on the boat).”
At the Oak Park Heights site, “everything will be right there,” he said.
“It’s perfect for a boat ramp,” Steinmetz said. “It’s a ready-made deal. I would be fishing three times a week if it was open now. The water is deep, and it brings you to good fishing all the way down to past Hudson. I can’t wait.”
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