by CHRIS ROGERS
Winonans hate it so much they made up a verb for it. “Getting trained,” in the lingo of some locals, means being stuck at a railroad crossing waiting for a train to pass. Among the worst blockages in town happen on Mankato Avenue, where the road is blocked not just by passing trains for a few minutes, but by trains slowly backing up and switching tracks or by train crews connecting railcars to build trains. It clogs one of the busiest streets in Winona, sometimes for close to half an hour. Winona city leaders do have a plan in the works that they hope will do a little bit to alleviate the pain of “getting trained.” It has been progressing slowly.
The plan involves creating a warning system that would alert motorists on Mankato Avenue whenever a train starts switching. It would not be triggered by passing trains, but when switching operations promise to block the road for many minutes on end, the warning system would give motorists a chance to circumvent the Mankato Avenue crossing. The idea is to install warning lights and signs on Mankato Avenue north of Eighth Street and south of Sarnia Street, so that drivers could turn onto those streets and drive west to the nearest open railroad crossing — perhaps on Hamilton Street. The latest iteration of the plan would also send a signal back to the Winona County dispatch center whenever a train is switching, so that emergency responders could avoid Mankato Avenue, too.
Nobody thinks this is a perfect solution. Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander called it a “Band-aid,” but the other options were very costly and problematic for other reasons. In 2015, city consultants studied constructing an overpass, either at Louisa Street or Mankato Avenue. That was estimated to cost $16-$25 million and would either displace large businesses that employ scores of people or displace scores of small businesses and family homes and divide a neighborhood. City consultants also studied moving the rail-switching and train-building operations from the East End to the west. That was estimated to cost $6 million, and it would essentially shift Winona’s blockage problem to Goodview, according Winona Public Works Keith Nelson. Winona city staff considered it too expensive, and Goodview officials were opposed. The warning system was initially estimated to cost $25,000-$30,000, but the project has since proven to be more complicated than expected and city staff are currently working to get an updated — and possibly higher — cost estimate. “I’m sure any permanent, better solution is going to be quite a ways down the road,” Mayor Mark Peterson stated when the City Council voted to pursue the warning system last October.
That was 11 months ago. During that time, council member George Borzyskowski has occasionally reminded city staff of the problem. So where is the warning system?
Nelson and city engineer Brian DeFrang explained the project did hit one roadblock. City staff laid out a design for the warning system and received a bid from a local electrician to construct it, but then found out that the railroad required any engineer working on the project to be certified to work on railroad systems. Nelson and DeFrang said they did not recall exactly when they found out about the certification requirement, but Nelson said that a little over a month ago, the city requested a proposal from the engineering firm Stantec to design the warning system. Stantec is railroad certified; it is the same firm that did the overpass and switching-operation-relocation studies. Nelson said he is still waiting to get Stantec’s full proposal, which would outline the parameters of the project and how much Stantec will charge for engineering. He said he did not know when he would receive that proposal, but that he does have funding in his budget for the engineering. How long the Canadian Pacific Railway would take to review and approve the project design is another unknown.
Once the engineering is done and approved, Nelson said he would go back to the City Council with an updated cost estimate and see if council members still want to construct the system. There is no funding specifically earmarked for the project in the city’s 2019 budget, but it could use reserves. “I would still anticipate that it would happen in 2019,” Nelson said. “I think it’ll be ready to come back to council once we get some numbers and costs. It’s not a big construction project.” The design is the hard part, he stated.
Do Nelson, the consultants, and other city staff think this project makes sense? Will it be effective at its goal? “The council has requested us to pursue this, and nothing is perfect and it would definitely have some benefits,” Nelson responded. “The council will have to make some decision about whether the benefits are equal to the cost, and I don’t know the cost yet.” There are a few examples of other cities with similar systems, Nelson reported.
In the meantime, citizens who “get trained” for extended periods of time in the city of Winona or anywhere can call the railroad to complain. The main running line in Winona belongs to Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). For an emergency, dial 911; CP’s emergency line is 1-800-716-9132. For general questions and concerns, call CP 1-888-333-6370. The main running line along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin belongs to BNSF. For an emergency, dial 911; BNSF’s emergency line/reporting line is 1-800-832-5452.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.