Guest Opinion: Light at the end of the tunnels


(10/11/2017)

by WSU President Scott Olson

The phrase, “There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” is cliché and overused, but I hope you’ll allow me to employ it here, where it feels particularly relevant. After 20 years in the making, WSU’s pedestrian tunnels project is nearing completion, and I for one am excited about what this means for pedestrian safety in the city of Winona.

Along the way, some concerns have been voiced in the community about this project, mainly about the cost of and funding for the project, the ability of the tunnels to stay dry, and why tunnels were selected versus an overpass. I’d like to thank those who have come forward with their concerns, and I hope I’ll be able to address at least some of those questions here.

The original vision for these tunnels dates back about 20 years to when Darrell Krueger was president of WSU. Federal funding for the project was secured about 12 years ago, during the George W. Bush administration when Representative Jim Oberstar chaired the U.S. House Transportation Committee. The logistics of designing the tunnels and getting the necessary permissions, especially concerning the railroad, were daunting, and took up most of the intervening years. These delays led to inflation, so the university set aside resources from its general fund, which is a mix of regularly appropriated taxpayer dollars and tuition dollars, to make up the difference. Apart from the initial federal funds, no special appropriations or tax increases are associated with the tunnels project.

The tunnels use a French drain system that removes any water that comes into them. After initial construction was completed, about half of each tunnel was perfectly dry. However, some water remained on the tunnel floors, up to one inch at the deepest point, because the membrane that goes between the culvert and the soil did not seal properly. It’s difficult to tell for certain without completely disassembling the tunnels, but the membrane may have been torn during installation, or sand prevented a perfect seal, or some other imperfection was the cause.

This installation problem was easily addressed by drilling small holes in the culvert seams and injecting a hardening foam to seal any imperfections in the membrane. As of the time I am writing this, both of the tunnels are completely sealed, with the cost of this extra step primarily borne by the contractors. Some finishing work is all that remains to be done before the tunnels will open to the public.

I’ve heard some say that an overpass would have been a better solution. Having only been at WSU for five years, I can’t personally recount to what extent that idea was considered and rejected, but I can predict that it would have presented its own challenges. Modern trains often have “double-decker” boxcars that can approach 20 feet in height. In order to create an overpass high enough to clear the trains while accommodating disability access as prescribed by law, the ramp approach probably would have to be longer than the available space, or an elevator would need to have been installed.

As to whether this project should have been done at all, Winonans are free to judge for themselves. Every year that I have lived in Winona, someone has died on the railroad tracks. On two occasions that I can remember, the fatalities were students. The safety of our students is our top concern, and we are always looking for ways to keep our students safe. To me, this project seems like a valid expense to mitigate a known risk. The fact that our federal and state officials provided the initial funding for this project so many years ago seems to indicate they agreed with this assessment.

At this point, we are mere weeks away from the tunnels being open for pedestrian traffic, and I hope you will agree with me that “there’s light at the end of the tunnels.”

 

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