by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona City Council members have been asking since July. City staff members still don’t know when this year’s street repaving projects will be done. It’s not really their fault.
Winona City Engineer Brian DeFrang explained Old Highway 43, Winona’s portion of Goodview Road, Huff Street near Lake Park, 10th Street near Huff Street, Ridgewood Drive, and part of Highland Drive are all slated to be resurfaced this year. The city’s contract with Dunn Blacktop for the work allows the contractor the flexibility to complete the projects virtually anytime this year, DeFrang stated. Whenever the contractor can fit the project in, it is up to the contractor, Winona Public Works Director Keith Nelson explained, responding to council member Michelle Alexander’s concerns earlier this summer. When council member George Borzyskowski asked again last week, DeFrang could only give the same answer. He explained he has not heard back from the contractor.
“They’ll get it done,” DeFrang said in an interview. Dunn Blacktop’s affiliates own most of the aggregate quarries in the area, and it is often the only bidder on local road projects. It is a big company, and resurfacing a few streets is a small project for the firm, DeFrang stated.
“Honestly, if anything, it’s a one-week project,” he stated. He reported that the city’s contract requires the work to be done at the end of this month, though he said that a November completion date might be acceptable to the city. Dunn Blacktop’s owner was not available for comment.
Warning system for rain blockages on Mankato Ave. nears reality
By February or March 2020, Winona could install a system of warning lights to alert motorists of trains blocking Mankato Avenue for an extended period of time, according to Nelson.
Trains switching tracks — from a main running line that cuts across Winona to a spur line that runs along Wall Street in the East End — can block traffic on Mankato Avenue for dozens of minutes at a time, infuriating drivers and forcing emergency responders to take the long way around.
The city has been working on a solution for years, and council member George Borzyskowski has made sure city staff don’t forget about the problem.
In 2015, city leaders studied building a railroad overpass or relocating the switching operation to Goodview, but the cost of those measures — $20-million-plus for an overpass and $6-million to relocate switching operations — and other tradeoffs associated with those ideas have so far dissuaded the City Council from pursuing them. Instead, in 2017, the council settled on a proposal to install warning lights alerting motorists that trains are switching and allowing them to find a way around the crossing. Alexander criticized the plan as “a band-aid” that would not really solve the problem, but the rest of the council agreed, it’s better than nothing.
The now-fully-designed system would include warning lights south of the railroad crossing at Mankato Avenue and Frontenac Drive, north of the crossing at Mankato and Seventh Street, and on Sarnia to the west. When trains begin switching, the lights would go off and motorists could decide what to do — perhaps driving around to the Franklin Street crossing instead of getting stuck on Mankato Avenue for a half-hour.
Implementing even this partial solution has taken the city two years so far, but last week, the council gave staff permission to seek quotes for the estimated $70,000 project. Nelson said the warning system could installed by February or March.
“The warning lights are not going to unblock the crossing,” Borzyskowski said in an interview. “To me, the main purpose is for traffic control — to let you know, ‘Hey it’s blocked. You need to go another way.’”
While the full council has yet to agree on a future plan of action, Borzyskowski said that relocating the switching operation would be the ultimate solution to the problem. “An overpass is out of the question,” he stated, citing the number of homes and businesses such a large structure would displace.
New Lake Park playground delayed; other playgrounds slated for elimination
After delays, Lake Park’s bandshell playground may not be replaced until next summer, and city officials are planning to eliminate three other outdated playgrounds elsewhere in the city.
The Lake Park bandshell playground was the city’s largest playground. It was demolished earlier this year in preparation for the construction of a new, all-inclusive playground that could accommodate children with all types of abilities, regardless of handicaps. Dubbed Every Child’s Dream, local Lions Clubs spearheaded the effort, raised donations, and split the cost with the city.
Originally, city officials hoped to open the new playground this month. However, construction was delayed because of unexpected problems with the soil, Winona Park and Recreation Director Chad Ubl told the Post. The problem was that, like many other areas around Lake Park, the soil is swampy and soft. Ubl explained that shifting subsoil can be a big problem for the surface planned for the new playground — a type of rubberized surface called Pour’n’Play. Unstable soil has ruined the surface at parks in other cities, and so Winona staff decided to hire contractors to correct the soil problem by replacing the mushy ground with compressed sand and create a solid base for the new playground.
Before the city even realized the soil needed to be corrected, contractors had a hard time collecting soil samples because of this year’s extended spring flooding season, Ubl explained. “The area needed soil testing and our contractor couldn’t get in until the middle of June to do those soil tests, primarily because the groundwater was up in that area until June,” he said.
After realizing soil work was needed, city staff drew up specifications and solicited bids from contractors. Three bids came back this fall, but, unfortunately, they were high. The lowest bid was $230,000. The engineer’s cost estimate was $189,000. Last week, the City Council voted to reject all of the bids and try again in January.
Ubl said the city should be able to get better prices then, and even if work doesn’t start until next spring, the playground should be completed by the project’s original deadline: July 1, 2020.
In the meantime, the bandshell will be without a playground for a little bit longer.
“Our feeling is on January 1, we should have a lot more people bidding, maybe all of them,” said Jack Krage, Every Child’s Dream chair. “So that alone should drive the price down.” Had the project been done without the soil remediation, Krage continued, it would have warped the expensive matting, which would then have had to be replaced. “So actually, the delay is for the better, except that kids don’t want to wait another year.”
Asked what he would tell people anxious to have a playground for their kids to play on, Ubl responded, “I appreciate their patience as we wait to get this corrected and installed. Once completed, I think it’ll be our premier playground facility and, I think, highly utilized.”
Also, Ubl said that city staff plan to remove and not replace three other playgrounds before the end of this year: the Dacota Street playground in Lake Park, the Hamilton Street playground in Lake Park, and the Latsch Shelter/deer park playground at Prairie Island. Ubl explained these playgrounds are being eliminated because they feature a square-post construction style that does not meet modern industry standards for safety.
“It’s not like the sky is falling and kids shouldn’t play on them,” Ubl said. “It’s that those systems have seen issues across the country. So again, best practices, national standards would tell you, we’ve seen some incidents across the country with these systems, so they need to be removed.” He added that the Dacota Street playground also has problems with standing water because it is low-lying.
Ubl stated the city is intentionally planning to not replace those playgrounds. Ubl said multiple times in the last two years that the city should reduce the total number of playgrounds it owns because it can’t afford the cost of replacing the playground equipment.
The city and donors have invested a lot in the Every Child’s Dream playground, Ubl pointed out. “So part of the argument is, ‘Well, why have ancillary playground systems throughout Lake Park?’” he stated. “When you put significant dollars into one system at the lake, that’s where we would like to keep our investment and our resources.”
Riverview Drive guardrails planned
New guardrails should be installed on Riverview Drive this month or next, according to DeFrang.
Since the 1990s, nine people have died in two accidents at the corner of Riverview Drive and Second Street, when their vehicles failed to turn a sharp corner in the road and crashed into the Mississippi River.
Temporary barriers have be in place at the corner since the beginning of the Winona bridge project in 2014, but since its completion this summer, those barriers have been removed. New guardrails were planned to be installed as part of a Riverview Drive resurfacing project this August, but the paving work was delayed. After meeting with contractors for the paving project, DeFrang told the Winona Post the guardrails will be installed this October or November. The guardrails can be installed even in frost, he added.