by CHRIS ROGERS
Build a railroad overpass at Mankato Avenue. That is what engineering consultants hired by city staff told the Winona City Council to do late last month. If the City Council takes the consultants' advice it could eliminate train delays and resolve safety concerns. It would also require the seizure of many homes and small businesses and would increase traffic on the Mankato Avenue and Broadway. On Monday, city staff will ask the City Council for direction on whether to move forward with that recommendation, pursue an overpass at Louisa Street on the far east side of the East End retail and industrial park, or do nothing. Citizens, too, will get a chance to comment Monday.
City leaders had planned to build an overpass at Louisa Street for years. Traffic congestion has been an issue on Mankato Avenue between Sarnia Street and Highway 61 ever since the city's Riverbend "Industrial" Park was filled with large retail stores. To fix that the city has tried numerous times to fund a project to alleviate that traffic by extending Louisa Street to Highway 61 and creating a secondary entrance to eastern Winona. Building an overpass on Louisa Street was always "step two" in that plan.
However, this spring, city staff hired consultants to compare the benefits of building an overpass at Louisa Street with an idea the city had never seriously studied before: building one at Mankato Avenue.
That decision came after months of complaints from citizens about long delays on Mankato Avenue. It is not unusual for trains to block the Mankato Avenue railroad crossing for over 15 minutes, while Canadian Pacific Railway crews switch trains from the running line to the Wall Street spur track. While emergency vehicles can circumvent those blockages by taking alternate routes, they block the most direct route to Winona's hospital.
City staff hired consultants from the Rochester-based engineering firm Stantec to complete the study. City staff have hired Stantec without a competitive process — state law does not require one — for most of the city's large engineering studies in the last few years. Stantec engineers finished it on October 26, and, in response to requests from the Winona Post, city staff released the report on Friday.
The consultants concluded that an overpass at Louisa Street would seriously hurt big industrial businesses while providing comparatively small traffic improvements. The city would need to purchase or seize a Severson Oil facility, Miller Ingenuity's headquarters and manufacturing plant, and Anova Furnishings' manufacturing plant, as well as some vacant industrial land. Because of the limited available land in Winona, those displaced businesses might not be able to relocate in Winona or decide against it, the consultants pointed out.
The long approach ramps on either side of an overpass at Louisa Street would also require the city to close King Street's and Mark Street's connections to Louisa Street. The overpass ramp would be 17-feet high at King Street. Closing Mark Street's connection to Louisa would turn Mark Street into "a peninsula enclosed by a creek to the south, the overpass to the west, and the railroad to the north … an approximately 2,500-foot dead-end road with no alternate access," the consultants wrote. That would hurt the large industrial businesses on East Mark Street including Badger Foundry, Wincraft, and the Winona ORC (Occupational Rehabilitation Center) and require them to route trucks on residential portions of Mark Street, the consultants stated. Plus, it would give fire trucks only one route to reach the big plants. The consultants' report indicated that it would be possible to connect Mark Street to Louisa Street by seizing a printing company property southwest of the current intersection; however, city officials told the consultants they did not want to eliminate another business.
Building an overpass at Mankato Avenue would also require seizing a lot of property: homes, apartments, and small businesses, including Audio Designs, Absolute Salon & Spa, Pac N Mail, Mankato Bar, Enlightened Equipment, Paperbacks & Pieces, and the future site of Dave's Home Inspection Service. According to the report, the city would need to seize nearly all of the properties abutting Mankato Avenue from Belleview to Sanborn streets. Side-street access to Mankato Avenue would be closed off at King, Howard and Mark streets.
"The proposed overpass … would effectively cut the neighborhood in half for a three-block area," the consultants noted. Pedestrian underpasses could help alleviate that separation, but they would add cost and such underpasses can suffer security, drainage and lighting problems. The overpass would have visual impacts on the neighborhood, too. At Howard Street it would be 29-feet tall.
Both options would be expensive. An overpass at Mankato Avenue was estimated to cost $25 million. An overpass at Louisa Street would cost $16 million.
One of the biggest advantages of building an overpass on Mankato Avenue would be that it would serve far more vehicles. Under federal guidelines, overpasses should be considered at crossings where the daily crossing exposure rate (the number of daily trains times the number of daily vehicle trips) is greater than 500,000. Mankato Avenue is just under that threshold with an exposure rate of 451,200 (14,100 vehicles per day times 32 trains per day). It is the highest exposure rating of any crossing in Winona. Louisa Street is far lower with only 1,950 vehicles per day and an exposure rating of 62,400.
If the city builds an overpass in either location, it would attract some additional traffic — drivers who want to use the overpass — and affect how traffic moves throughout the city. Consultants reported that an overpass at Louisa Street would not attract much more traffic — only an extra 743 vehicles per day — because the time it takes to drive from Mankato Avenue to Louisa Street is approximately equal to the average railroad crossing blockage time. The consultants did not provide a traffic analysis of how much a Louisa Street overpass would be used if the city connects Louisa Street to Highway 61, as it plans to do. The consultants said a Louisa Street extension would increase traffic on Louisa Street, but they did not think it would be significant.
An overpass on Mankato Avenue would increase traffic on both Mankato Avenue and Broadway significantly. Stantec engineers estimated that traffic on Mankato south of the overpass would go up from 14,100 vehicles per day to 15,990. North for the overpass, in front of Washington-Kosciusko Elementary School, traffic would go up from 12,700 vehicles per day to 14,395, and on Broadway traffic would rise from 8,600 vehicles per day to 9,972.
Mankato Avenue is already a busy street at peak hours. Last year, city staff hired Stantec to study possible changes to Mankato Avenue between Sarnia Street and Highway 61 to reduce congestion. Building an overpass on Mankato Avenue would add to that traffic.
Stantec also studied a "do nothing" option.
To formulate their recommendation, Stantec engineers produced a "decision matrix" in which they gave point values to the pros and cons of each option. Because of heavy weighting for impacts to emergency services, traffic, and safety, the "do nothing" option scored very poorly: -21.
The Louisa Street overpass scored -1 overall. The consultants did not give the Louis Street overpass any points for traffic improvements, and when the financial cost and impact to neighboring businesses was weighed against safety improvements, it was a wash.
According to the consultants, big improvements in safety, traffic, and emergency services outweighed the heavy financial and social costs of a Mankato Avenue overpass. It scored eight points overall. "With increasing traffic, the known crossing issues will continue to become worse if the existing conditions are maintained," they wrote. "A grade separation will provide significant improvements to safety [and] emergency services mobility and reduce traffic delays. Compared to Louisa Street, a grade separation at Mankato Avenue will benefit more users and has a greater increase in overall safety as indicated by a reduction in overall vehicle-rail [exposure] rate." Compared to Louisa Street, a Mankato Avenue overpass would also provide a more direct route for emergency vehicles to access the hospital.
It does not have to happen Monday, but sooner or later the City Council needs to pick one of these options, said city engineer Brian DeFrang. "You can't move forward designing all of them," he explained. "You need to move forward with one of them. We're looking for direction with which way to go … Choose either Louisa or Mankato or neither. Choose one or the other and then pursue funding." He explained that the city would plan to pursue a variety of possible state and federal funding sources. "Both projects are way too big for the city to take on without external funding," he added.
The Winona City Council will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, November 9, at the East Recreation Center, 210 Zumbro Street. Stantec engineers will present their study and the council is expected to discuss their reactions to it. Following that meeting, the city will host an open house to solicit public comments on the plan.
Louisa vs. Mankato
Mankato Avenue overpass - $25M:
- Four lanes
- Displaces residents, small businesses
- Serves more vehicles
Louisa Street overpass - $16M
- Two lanes
- Displaces large industrial businesses
Overpass options at a glance
Below are the estimated costs and some of the pros and cons of each overpass option, according to engineering consultants.
Mankato Avenue overpass — four lanes — $25M
- Serves more vehicles
- Offers a bigger decrease in the risk of train-vehicle collisions
- Provides a more direct route for emergency vehicles
- Cuts neighborhood in half
- Many homes and small businesses would be seized
- Increases traffic on Mankato Avenue and Broadway
Louisa Street overpass — two lanes — $16M
- Small visual impact because it’s in an industrial area
- Overpass would improve truck access to some neighboring businesses
- Displaces large industrial businesses that might have trouble relocating in Winona
- Street closures would causes access problems for other neighboring businesses