by CHRIS ROGERS
Although several members had reservations about some of its proposals, last week the Winona City Council unanimously approved the city’s first-ever Complete Streets Policy and a plan for future pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
The council approved two documents. The first is the Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan, which includes a wide range of goals and ideas for improving walking, biking, and handicap-accessible infrastructure in Winona, such as adding curb bumpouts for pedestrians at intersections, creating new bike lanes and bike paths, and transferring the responsibility for snow clearing on some sidewalks to city crews. The second is the Complete Streets Policy, which requires the city engineering department to consider the Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan’s goals when rebuilding city streets. Neither one commits the city to actually implementing the goals.
Walking and biking supporters said the policy’s approval was a step in the right direction. Asked if the plan’s proposals for walking and biking improvements would ultimately be implemented, Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa said, “I think it’s important to have them out there at least.”
Council member Michelle Alexander has been an outspoken critic of one proposal in the plan — cannibalizing the roadway shoulders to create a bike path on Riverview Drive. There just is not enough space to accommodate all the turning trucks and a bike path, and encouraging cyclists to travel on one of the city’s busiest heavy truck routes is a bad idea, she says. Nevertheless, Alexander spoke out in support of approving the Complete Streets Policy at last week’s meeting. She likened the policy to the city’s comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan does not, in and of itself, accomplish tangible results, but it sets big-picture goals for the future of the city and is supposed to guide future decision making. “It’s giving us an idea of what our city could look like if we include pedestrian and bike safety with that,” Alexander said at the meeting. “From my perspective, there’s no reason not to include a plan for the city,” she added.
If staff follow the policy, it will have one immediate, substantive change on the way the city does business. If the city is doing more than simply patching potholes or conducting other routine maintenance, the city must consider making the sort of biking and walking improvements proposed in the Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan. In many cases under the policy, the decision will require City Council action. The policy establishes very limited reasons why city staff could nix proposed walking and biking improvements when rebuilding streets. If the council determines that adding walking and biking infrastructure is too expensive for a given project or is redundant in a given location, the policy requires the council to make a formal decision to leave it out. “This forces us to go and look at it, instead of just leaving it the way it is,” city manager Steve Sarvi told the council. It means there will be a public discussion of whether to include walking and biking infrastructure, Alexander said in an interview. “If we’re not going to put it in, there needs to be a rationale for why,” she stated.
Council member Al Thurley was hesitant about supporting the plan. In previous meetings, he said that most Winonans do not actually want the kind of changes proposed in the Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan and cited reports that adding all kinds of new roadway striping for bike lanes confuses motorists and may make roads less safe. He, too, criticized the Riverview Drive bike path concept at the meeting, pointing out that the conceptual design in the Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan was so scrunched, that it did not actually create much separation between cyclists and truck traffic. “I’ll support this going forward as long as we can address individual concerns in projects as they come up,” Thurley stated.
Specific proposals to rebuild streets will likely come up next August, if not sooner. That is when city staff will propose the 2019 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) to the City Council, the city’s annual schedule for funding large infrastructure projects.
The Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan includes goals for a “road diet” on Broadway — that is, converting parts of the four-lane road to a three-lane road with bike lanes and curb bumpouts. In a separate decision earlier this fall, the City Council already supported seeking a federal grant for that project. If the city is awarded the grant, the City Council will decide whether to accept it and move forward with that project.
“Just because I like the plan doesn’t mean that every portion of it will be funded … It’ll be a starting point or a stepping off point,” Alexander said in an interview when asked about her decision to support the Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan even though she does not support everything in it. “I’m not in favor of the Broadway plan either, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in favor of bikes and pedestrians,” she stated. So what does Alexander support? She said there are a lot of more modest improvements the city could make, such as re-striping streets to create dedicated bike lanes where the bike lanes are currently combination bike/parking lanes. “You’d be better off putting a giant ‘share the road’ sign in the middle of the street rather than have a pretend bike lane blocked by a parked car,” she said.
The full Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan and Complete Streets Policy may be found online at www.cityofwinona.com/city-services/planning-zoning/complete-streets.