With a two-bridge plan on the table (see story below), an informal open house held Thursday on the Winona Bridge Project didn't yield much in the way of big announcements or major changes. Instead, transportation officials and bridge consultants spoke with groups and individuals about the details of what to expect as the new bridge is designed and constructed, and the current span is given an update to address its structural deficiencies.
The biggest attraction of the evening was the information station regarding property acquisition for the project, residential and business purchases that Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) officials said will almost certainly involve the courts and eminent domain. Rough design sketches show the new bridge and widened intersection at Fourth and Winona streets will require Mn/DOT to purchase more than 20 privately-owned parcels or parts of parcels.
The aggregate cost to buy them—through direct negotiation or through eminent domain—has been estimated to be between $12 million and $20 million, said Mn/DOT Senior Real Estate Representative John Paulson. He said the actual cost for the selected two-bridge option may be a bit under those numbers, because those financial projections were from an assessment when several other new bridge options, also adjacent to the current bridge, were still on the table. If the alignment of the new bridge were, for example, a bit farther upstream and encroaching on Huff Street, Paulson said the price tag would climb.
Paulson outlined the rights property owners may exercise as the state seeks to purchase their land. With a crowd of people worried about the future of homes and businesses huddled around him, he explained that in some instances, a business owner must undertake the entire eminent domain court process and sue the state in order to recoup the full loss he might take when forced to move to a new location.
When a business has a great location, high customer traffic in a well-established spot that simply cannot be replaced, moving to a less adventageous location will ultimately mean less money in the till. In order to receive compensation for the retail blow, Paulson said, an owner must do the following: refuse to sell through negotiations; wait for the state to proceed with eminent domain; follow the case "through the court system and acquisition through condemnation” action; and sue the state for a "loss of going concern," a legal term for the money the business may lose when forced to move. In the lawsuit, the owner must prove that business will diminish with any new location, and, must prove it before moving to a new location. Paulson said it was a relatively new statute provision, and he wasn't aware of many cases in which it had been used.
About 80 to 85 percent of similar property acquisition efforts include a willing seller and an agreed-upon price through direct negotiation with the state, Paulson told the crowd; about 15 to 20 percent of property owners end up in court with an eminent domain challenge or lawsuit.
Residential property transactions for similar government projects are often easier to negotiate directly, except in cases when development opportunities promise a higher property value than what the state has offered to pay. Properties are first appraised (property owners may also choose an independent appraiser of their choice), and direct negotiations begin. If, for both residential and business properties, an owner can prove that it will cost more than the appraised value to replace the property, the state will pay that higher price. Paulson provided an example: if your business sits on 2.5 acres and is valued at $500,000, but the planned replacement parcel will cost $700,000, the state will pay the higher figure, the true cost of the move. It is when a business owner feels that he or she won’t make as much money at the new site that a “loss of going concern” lawsuit against the state is used.
“The question I have is what happens to the 40 families that work there?” asked one affected business owner, eyeing his property on the new bridge design map. Paulson said the state doesn’t provide money for lost jobs or for owners who might have to train new employees if current staff don’t want to make the move with the business.
Sometimes, an undeveloped or underdeveloped property might carry with it a higher potential value due to planned developments or other factors, and Paulson said that potential valuation is typically handled through the appraisal process.
Rough maps of the footprint of the new bridge and the widened intersection at Fourth and Winona streets show more than 20 affected parcels, including some that clearly must be totally purchased by the state for the project, and a few properties where the lines simply cut into a front yard or a portion of the parcel. Paulson said when the state only needs a portion of the parcel, it will reimburse property owners for the drop in value of the property, with the price determined by an appraisal.
The map shows several businesses west of the current bridge that will be affected, including several vehicle dealership lots, the AmericInn hotel, the Sinclair gas station and the county environmental/hazardous waste building on Second Street. The YMCA may have to relinquish a portion of its property edges for widened streets at Fourth and Winona, but the building won’t be affected.
Paulson said that unlike the current bridge, nothing can be located under any new bridge because of Homeland Security issues. Vehicle parking cannot be provided under any new structure, either. Additionally, a small zone on either side of the new bridge footprint must be cleared and remain vacant, he said. “Nothing can encroach within that right-of-way,” he said.
Highway 43 route
Back in the initial planning stages of the bridge project, Mn/DOT studied possible locations for an entirely new bridge. Because several options would have moved the bridge away from Winona Street, Mn/DOT traffic studies looked at the Highway 43 route through downtown for a possible move to connect to the new bridge.
Now that the selected plan keeps both bridge approaches connected to Winona Street, Nancy Frick of Mn/DOT said changes to the Highway 43 route are off the table. “That’s not part of this project,” she said.
A collective sigh of relief
While some property owners within the path of the new bridge must now contemplate relocation, many more area residents and business owners expressed relief in a bridge solution that will provide a river crossing throughout construction.
After the new bridge is constructed, all traffic will be routed onto the new structure while the current bridge undergoes significant rehabilitation. Without that new bridge in place, motorists would have had to find another way to cross the river while the current bridge underwent rehabilitation. Bridge closure, even temporarily, was one of the biggest concerns expressed by community leaders and business owners as Mn/DOT explored other options over the last five years.
Bridge project consultants said Thursday that attempting to address all the problems with extended bridge closure proved to be a much more difficult task than previously thought, and those problems helped push officials toward a two-bridge concept that would avoid any closure. There are Winona Firefighters who live in Wisconsin, and whose contracts require they live within a 20-minute drive from the city, said one consultant Thursday. Ambulances carrying Wisconsin residents to Winona Health would have had to travel much farther without an operational bridge during construction, he said, and Mn/DOT officials actually looked into the possibility of having an emergency medical helicopter and ambulance stationed on the Wisconsin side as a means to get patients across the river. But because fog so often makes it difficult for helicopters to land in the area, that option was dismissed in favor of a new bridge, and, no closure during construction.
The new bridge
• A new, parallel, two-lane bridge will be constructed immediately upstream from the current bridge, with both bridges to connect to Winona Street at Fourth Street, and both to provide a route to Latsch Island.
• Construction is planned for 2015, a year after the original date, following many delays with initial studies.
• The new bridge will be a girder-style bridge, similar to the I-90 bridge over the Mississippi River near La Crescent.
• Once the new bridge is complete, all traffic will be routed onto it while the current bridge undergoes rehabilitation. Once rehabilitation is complete, the new bridge will carry motorists to Winona and the current structure will bring them to Wisconsin.
• The current pedestrian path on the bridge will be removed, and bicyclists and pedestrians will have a new, 12-foot path on the new bridge.
• The intersection at Fourth and Winona streets will be widened. Final traffic routes have not yet been determined for the area.
• The latest cost estimate for the project (2008 dollars) is $150 million to $175 million, although earlier estimates put a higher price tag on the bridge plans and no updated estimates have been provided since the two-bridge option was selected.