It’s a project that has been studied and abandoned, studied and abandoned again. But now, the traffic signals there have little life left in them and need to be replaced, so the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) has drawn up plans for improvements to the intersection of Highway 61 and Gilmore Avenue.
The trouble is, none of the three options on the table (see sidebar) truly fixes the problems identified at what Mn/DOT calls a hig h collision intersection. Plus, the state has only $2 million for the work—only enough for the “minimum build” alternative. If that option were pursued, traffic levels would be “at capacity” the minute the shovels hit the dirt in 2015, said Mn/DOT Project Manager Jeff Bunch during a recent public meeting on the plans. He admitted the options were simply “band-aids” for the problems at the intersection. “There [are] flaws in each one of them,” he said.
In the past, when intersection improvements were studied, it was with much public involvement. But Winona Mayor Jerry Miller said at the meeting that Mn/DOT got “sick of” listening to stakeholder input, which is why no project was ever decided upon. This time around, Mn/DOT officials, along with a consultant and Winona City Engineer Brian DeFrang, studied multiple project alternatives, from a gigantic roundabout at the spot, to fixes deemed too expensive by the state. Three options are on the table now, ranging between $2.3 million and $6.2 million. With only $2 million budgeted for the work, Bunch said he felt the cheapest fix was doable. If the community wanted something more, he said, Winona would have to get back in line for state money.
“We are anxious to get something accomplished here,” said Bunch. “Intersections are not supposed to meet at skewed angles like these.” With Service Drive so close to Highway 61, “stacking,” or a back-up of a few cars at an intersection, doesn’t work well. It’s not controlled, and it’s not safe, he said.
Some at the meeting said they had been members of a task force years ago that worked on various solutions to the problems at the intersection, and said they were impressed with the new ideas that were generated by Mn/DOT. None of the three alternatives this time include right-of-way acquisition or purchase of private homes or businesses, which had prompted controversy over the options previously identified.
Still others questioned Mn/DOT about removing several more substantial fixes from the list due to the cost of those projects. One would have reconfigured the Gilmore and Orrin St. intersection into a large 90 degree intersection, and would have required property acquisition. Bunch said that option would have cost about $10 million, and said that the price tag was too high for the problem it would address. Several audience members commented that while Mn/DOT was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on improvements to the Rochester area, Winona couldn’t get a fraction of that to fix a problem decades old. “You’re spending so much money everywhere else, and yet we’re probably the second largest city in our [Mn/DOT 6] district,” said one attendee.
Mayor Miller said that in past studies, the public rejected plans to fix the intersection so heartily that the City Council was unwilling to back them. Because of those citizen concerns, said Miller, nothing was done to improve the problem. Mn/DOT got sick of hearing the complaints then, and, warned Miller, some of those old gripes are surfacing now. Mn/DOT probably had a pretty good plan back then, too, he said, but it was dismissed because of negative feedback from the community just like this.
Mn/DOT officials are asking for the public to weigh in on these new options in order to help determine which alternative would be built, were there funds available. Written comments can be mailed to Jeff Bunch, Mn/DOT District 6, 2900 48th Street NW, Rochester, MN, 55901. The deadline for mailed comments is September 25.