by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona County officials plan to delay a $2.7-million project to widen Goodview Road (County Road 129) until next year. The narrow, often shoulderless road is frequented by recreational cyclists, families in the WE Valley and Hidden Valley neighborhoods, and other residents. Work to widen it and improve pedestrian and bicycle safety was slated for construction this summer. However, Winona County Engineer Dave Kramer reported that prep work — including acquiring land from neighbors — is too far behind to finish the project this season. On Tuesday, he will ask the County Board to formally postpone construction until 2019.
Getting this project done has been a big priority for county commissioner Marie Kovecsi, who has been an outspoken advocate for pedestrian and bicycle safety and who is up for re-election this fall. It is also part of the reason Winona County now has a half-cent local sales tax that generates over $2 million every year for road projects across the county. Kovecsi cast the decisive vote for the sales tax in 2016 — over the objections of other Winona-based commissioners — in part because it seemed to be the only feasible option for funding the Goodview Road project. “As always, I’ve been concerned about the safety,” Kovecsi said. “That, to me, says do it as quickly as possible,” she continued. “I guess I have to cross my fingers one more year, that some pedestrians or cyclists or cars … that nothing happens,” Kovecsi stated.
To finish the project this year, Kramer said his department would have needed to solicit bids in March. However, the highway department still has significant work to do before the project is ready for bidding. Most notably, the project will require the county to acquire additional right-of-way — mostly on the road’s downhill side — from neighbors. “That’s probably the biggest task that remains before we’re able to go to bid,” Kramer stated. He said that while the county has met with property owners and commissioned appraisals, the county has not purchased any property yet.
Asked why the project was not ready in time, Kramer responded, “The bottom line is we planned to have this project ready to go, and we, as the highway department, did not accomplish that.” With more funding for road projects has come more work to get projects ready. “We knew even last fall that this was going to be a challenge to have everything ready to go to bids this spring … We’ve got six contracts to be awarded this spring, totalling roughly $6.7 million. We’ve got a lot going on, and I feel actually pretty good about what our staff has been able to accomplish,” Kramer said. “I really don’t think it’s going to be beneficial to start pointing fingers and that sort of thing. We knew it would be a challenge, and we’re not quite there,” he stated.
Kramer also noted that reconstructing and widening County Road 129 is a fairly complex project. It is complex. Scrunched between the toe of a bluff, neighboring homes, and wetlands, widening County Road 129 is an engineering and bureaucratic challenge. Cutting further into the hill on the uphill side will require significant investment in retaining walls; adding fill to the downhill side requires acquiring property, buying some wetland credits, and even U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval, in the case of one neighbor looking to borrow material for the project from a site beside Bollers Lake. The lake is part of the city of Winona’s flood protection system. “This project probably needed more attention and focus than what we had available to put on it,” Kramer added.
Kramer did tell the County Board the project would be hard pressed to be ready in-time late last year, when he came to the County Board for approval of a deal with the city of Goodview for Goodview to install city utilities under the new road. County Board members delayed action on the deal because the extension of city utilities into rural land had annexation implications for neighboring townships, and township officials were unaware of the deal. “We are frankly in crunch time to get good bids for this project,” Kramer told the board at the time, adding that the delay could postpone the project until 2019. The delay passed on a 3-2 vote, with Kovecsi voting against it. Rural commissioner Steve Jacob, who represents those townships, was upset they had not been informed already. The postponement delayed the project by one month.
The County Board could still chose to start construction this fall, but at this point, such a decision would stretch the project over two construction seasons, seriously inconveniencing neighbors, Kramer stated. Additionally, he explained that the project would be unlikely to attract competitive bids from contractors at this time of year, during the peak of construction season. The best way to get good prices for the project and minimize the nuisance to neighbors is to delay it until next year, Kramer said.
Kovecsi asked Kramer’s department to hold more public informational meetings on the project and construction plans. “I’m hoping that we can still have some public meetings about it this year to clear up any of those kind of concerns that might delay us next year, because why not get the public fully informed of what it’s going to look like?” Kovecsi said. “People in that area need to know. They, so far, don’t know what it will look like or how wide it will be,” she added. “That does need to be shared in a public meeting.”
Kramer said he did meet with neighbors this January and showed them a geometric layout of the project, but said he would be happy to hold another meeting if the County Board directs him to do so. A copy of the geometric layout is available online at https://bit.ly/2LeSeiz or by visiting the Winona County Highway Department homepage and clicking on “Construction Project Info.”