by CHRIS ROGERS
Was he for the Broadway road diet or against it? “It’s the first thing people want to know when I tell them I’m running for office,” Winona City Council candidate Will Gibson said this fall. He wasn’t alone. Despite everything else happening this year, the street redesign plan has been one of the hottest topics in Winona politics. Forty-five miles upstream, another Mississippi River town just did what Winona is planning: change its main drag from four lanes to three.
Highway 61 through Lake City used to be a four-lane, largely undivided road with no left-turn lanes, just like Winona’s Broadway. This fall, construction wrapped up on a project to change the road to two travel lanes and a center left-turn lane with curb bumpouts — the same treatment planned for Broadway this coming summer. At its high point, traffic on Highway 61 in Lake City averages 9,100 vehicles a day. Broadway gets 8,800 vehicles per day at its busiest, according to Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) traffic counts.
“The road opened right at the end of October, and it is amazing,” Lake City Director of Planning and Community Development Megan Smith said. “The feedback we’ve gotten — we’ve had people changing their minds. We’ve had people say they regret being on the opposing side to it. The road flows well. It looks nice. There have been no traffic issues with it at all.”
To be clear, not everyone in Lake City feels that way. Like Winona, a majority of the Lake City City Council approved the project, but it went on to be a major campaign issue. “I’m still opposed to it,” said Lake City City Council member Cindy McGrath, who originally ran for elected office to stop the project. Her fellow council member, Faye Brown echoed, “The whole reason I ran for City Council was because of the highway project, to try and help represent the citizens who were totally opposed to this project.” Now that construction is over, Brown said, “I still don’t like it.”
“Road diets” — converting four-lane, undivided streets into three-lane streets — is one of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) “proven safety countermeasures,” a list of field-tested, well-researched traffic engineering strategies that have been shown to reduce crashes. Road diets reduce accidents by 19-47 percent, according to the FHWA. The addition of a left turn lane and the reduction of opposing traffic lanes cuts down on the variables and potential conflicts for both drivers on side streets trying to cross the main road and drivers on the main road trying to turn left against oncoming traffic. They’re also credited with significant improvements to pedestrian safety by cutting down on the distance walkers have to cross, reducing the number of potential conflicts pedestrians face, decreasing speeding, and eliminating blindspots created when drivers in one lane stop for pedestrians but drivers in another lane don’t.
According to traffic engineers, three-lane road diets can do all of this while handling nearly as much traffic as four lanes. That’s possible because, on a four-lane street, drivers waiting to turn left occasionally block half the lanes anyway, they say. “If you have a four-lane and someone is trying to turn left, but traffic is still coming, then they have to stop and traffic backs up behind then,” Mn/DOT Public Engagement Coordinator Cindy Morgan explained. Mn/DOT traffic engineers led the Lake City project, but Winona Public Works Director and former city engineer Brian DeFrang and Winona-contracted traffic engineers from Stantec Engineering have made the same points: Broadway will be able to handle its 8,800 vehicles a day equally well with three lanes as with four. In Lake City, Morgan reported, “We really didn’t hear of any congestion issues. So it seems to be functioning just as we anticipated, but it did only open up this month.”
“There’s nowhere to get around people who are driving 15-20 miles an hour,” Brown complained. “Just today I was on it, and I saw a person passing in the [left-]turn lane before they got to the median because a person was driving 20 miles per hour. Well, that’s not safe either,” she said. Similarly, Winona City Council member Michelle Alexander — who opposed the Broadway road diet — raised concerns about shared center turn lanes being illegally used as passing lanes.
Just as Winona broadened Broadway to four lanes decades ago, Brown said of Highway 61 in Lake City, “Years and years ago, we fought to get a four-lane in this town, and to go backwards and make it a two-lane with a turn lane and all these bumpouts — I mean, don’t get me wrong; it looks very, very nice. But when you slow the traffic enough — this was the only place you could pass the traffic.”
“When you drive from Red Wing to Lake City, there’s not a lot of places to pass,” McGrath pointed out. The four-lane road in Lake City provided that opportunity to get around slow-moving vehicles, and the road diet eliminated that, she noted.
“If you are strictly using Lake City as a passing zone, you are not going to like this project,” Smith acknowledged. “People would take that four-lane as an opportunity to pass, and the city said, ‘No, thanks. We don’t want our community to be a passing zone. We want people to slow down.’” The goal is to enable families to safely cross over to the Lake Pepin path and support foot traffic to small businesses downtown, not facilitate passing, she stated.
In both cities, pedestrian safety drove the projects. A spate of pedestrian accidents on Broadway prompted Winona’s look at road diets. Decades of community input that Highway 61 was a barrier to reaching one of Lake City’s greatest assets — the walking path along Lake Pepin — fueled the three-lane conversion there, Smith said.
However, the two projects have important differences. Broadway is not a U.S. highway; it mostly runs through residential neighborhoods with more driveways on either side than Lake City. In Lake City, resurfacing Highway 61 was and would have been Mn/DOT’s responsibility regardless of the road diet, yet Lake City wound up paying for a sizable portion of the aesthetic niceties attached to that project, Faye and Brown reported. By comparison, because of the road diet, Winona is getting $1.9 million in state and federal grants to resurface Broadway that would normally have to come out of the city budget.
The Broadway road diet was approved on a series of 4-3 votes. In the election earlier this month, Winona City Council member-elect Aaron Repinski — a critic of the Broadway plan — defeated incumbent City Council member and Broadway-road-diet supporter Paul Schollmeier. While the incoming mayor, Scott Sherman, backs the project, there may be a City Council majority to scrap it. Council member-elect Steve Young stressed the importance of pedestrian safety, but ultimately said he opposes a three-lane conversion on Broadway during an event this fall.
Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi wasn’t taking sides. “There’s certainly some things that people can point to on either side of the question and say it’s a reason we should move forward with the project or it’s a reason we shouldn’t,” he said. “So I guess we’ll see where the new council stands.”
“If people are really against this in Winona, they need to go to the meetings and speak up,” McGrath advised.
If Winonans want to see for themselves how well a road diet really works, there is one just up the river, Smith said.