by CHRIS ROGERS
Monta May apologized for the perspiration. She had just booked it across town on her bicycle to make it to the meeting, and her hair was slightly damp where it touched her helmet pads. Winona city officials asked her and other citizens for input about what problems city streets pose for bicyclists and pedestrians and what improvements they would want to see.
Last Wednesday’s meeting was one of a series of input sessions the city held in preparation for writing a Complete Streets Plan. The plan would set goals and guidelines for including pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure when the city redoes streets. It could include simple things, such as sidewalks and crosswalks. Winona County’s plan calls for paving wider shoulders on some county roads. It could be bigger things, such as a pedestrian overpass of Highway 61 near Mankato Avenue — an idea the city manager Steve Sarvi briefly threw out. According to city officials, the city would try to incorporate recommendations from the plan when the city is repaving or rebuilding streets. That would mean changes would happen over time. The city completes a few major road projects every year. However, Sarvi said some recommendations could be implemented sooner.
Karla Krause is a member of a citizen steering committee that is working with grant-funded consultants and city staff to write the plan over the course of this year, and she is a dedicated walker. She lives downtown and walks almost everywhere she needs to go in Winona. She acknowledged that she is willing to walk further than most people, but said that Winona is a very walkable city. “For me, my biggest concern is drivers seeing me, especially on Broadway,” she said.
Krause is not alone. Many Winonans have said that Broadway is one of the most difficult and most dangerous streets for pedestrians to cross. A 2014 Winona Post report that analyzed over 10 years of pedestrian and bicycle crashes in the city backed that up. Pedestrians were hit more on Broadway than any other street. Mankato Avenue and Main, Huff, and Winona streets also ranked high.
What would help? “I’d really like to see Broadway be a two-lane,” Krause said. Reducing road width makes crossings easier for pedestrians to get across and often encourages drivers to slow down.
In 2015, the Winona City Council rejected a $1.4 million plan to add pedestrian “bump outs” at every intersection on a stretch of Broadway, convert Broadway to a two-lane road with a center turning lane, and add bike lanes on Broadway. However, the city has adopted some less expensive pedestrian safety improvements on Broadway since, including adding radar speed-indicating signs, button-activated flashing lights for pedestrian crossings, more crossing signs on the center line, and bolder crosswalk markings.
“We have a lot of streets where the parking lane and the bike lane are the same space,” May pointed out. “That’s not safe for bicyclists.” On paper, Winona has a great network of bike lanes, but in reality, many of those bike lanes are also parking lanes, meaning that cyclists have to weave in and out of the lane of traffic to avoid parked cars. Cyclists are also cautious of the “door zone,” the area where parked vehicles' doors may swing open in front of them.
Some cyclists ride on the sidewalk. The city passed an ordinance against riding bikes on the sidewalk downtown in order to protect pedestrians. The Post’s 2014 report found that most bicycle-vehicle crashes occurred when cyclists riding on the sidewalk entered the crosswalk at an intersection or when cars in driveways backed up across the sidewalk.
May suggested that the city designate more side streets as official shared streets, with painted “sharrows” and other signage to let drivers know they should expect bikes on the road. The city has done this on portions of Seventh and Johnson streets, but May said a more comprehensive network of east-west and north-south streets is needed.
Winona Planning Commission member Todd Paddock is a long-time cyclist. He said that Winona is pretty bike-able, except for crossing Highway 61. Ever since it was rebuilt years ago, Highway 61 has been a major barrier, separating bluffside parks, stores, and valley subdivisions from the core of the city. Bottlenecks at Mankato and Gilmore avenues have troubled vehicular traffic at times, but the four-lane highway is especially tricky to get across on foot, on bicycle, or in a wheelchair. At Huff Street, Highway 61 lacks pedestrian infrastructure such as buttons pedestrians and cyclists can use to activate stoplight sensors that only change the lights for cars. A Mn/DOT-city partnership project to provide a crosswalk at Huff Street and Highway 61 was once slated for 2016, then, according to city staff, Mn/DOT delayed it. Now, Mn/DOT officials say it will be done in 2018. The recent Gilmore Avenue reconstruction project included a crosswalk and sought to make the intersection less confusing and dangerous, but Paddock said he still will not ride his bike through it. “Traffic could come from so many places. It makes me nervous in a car; it makes me nervous on a bike.”
The other place Paddock will not ride his bike is Mankato Avenue between Sarnia Street and West Burns Valley. “We made a middle school you can’t bike to,” he said.
Would the city actually fund the recommendations this plan develops? Sarvi noted that there are lots of grant funding sources for pedestrian and bicycle improvements. Additionally, every year, the city gets state funding specifically for fixing up state-aid streets and state funding called local government aid (LGA). The city can spend LGA on anything, more or less, but in recent years, Winona leaders have consistently dedicated it to repaving cracked up streets. Sarvi raised the question, “Would the City Council be willing to divert some of the LGA dollars we’ve been using for mill and overlay projects for bike [and] pedestrian projects?” He added of the city’s commitment to funding in general, “A lot of it has to do with the strength of the community saying, 'We want this to happen.'”