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Letters: Mn/DOT, SHPO split on bridge design (07/17/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
     This view of the Mississippi River Valley from the existing Highway 43 Bridge in Winona may soon be blocked by a mass of concrete designed to support the new bridge. The view is not what makes it historic, said a Mn/DOT official in charge of ensuring that the project does not negatively affect the historic value of the existing bridge.
The Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) flexed its limited muscle against the plans by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) to move forward with the cheapest design option for Winona's Highway 43 Bridge, a design SHPO calls "unattractive and obstructive." SHPO's power is limited. It has a purely advisory role, while Mn/DOT has been given federal authority to oversee itself in fairly gauging historic impact. SHPO warned that Mn/DOT's recommended box girder design could have adverse effects on views from and of the historic old bridge and could damage the bridge's historic setting.

Letters between the agencies detail opposing opinions on the box girder type bridge and SHPO's favored tied arch or cable stay style bridges. In letters explaining its choice, Mn/DOT cites cost differences among the styles that are far out of line with its own recent estimates. The debate is significant because federal funding for the project requires Mn/DOT to comply with federal rules for evaluating historic impact.

If the recommended box girder bridge is constructed, travelers looking upstream from the old bridge will stare into "a rather massive side wall of the box girder, rather than the current expansive view of the Mississippi River corridor," wrote SHPO Government Programs and Compliance Manager Mary Ann Heidemann in a letter to Mn/DOT in January. "The constrained and unpleasant" views from the old bridge, as well as the altered profile of the old bridge deck, "could be considered an adverse affect on the bridge's setting," she wrote.

In response to Heidemann's letters, Mn/DOT Cultural Resource Unit Historian Kristine Zschomler said that a tied arch or cable stay bridge would cost "many tens of millions of dollars more than the girder type" and Mn/DOT could not afford those more expensive options. Recent cost estimates by MnDOT indicate that the tied arch and cable stay styles would be only $14 million more than a box girder bridge.

Zschomler asserted that cable stay and tied arch bridge designs would have a far more adverse impact on the visual quality of the old bridge. The superstructure of either of the two styles "confuses and changes the way the truss design appears," "fights visually with the truss design on the old bridge," and "dwarfs [the old bridge] making the new structure the dominant visual vertical element." Heidemann, by contrast, said that the differing superstructure of a tied arch or cable stay bridge would create "an interesting counterpoint, or conversation, with the historic bridge."

Diminished views from the old bridge are not a valid historic impact, Zschomler wrote. Additionally, Heidemann's concern about the upriver view from the old bridge, "presents an unlikely view for most users on the bridge it assumes someone is standing on the deck of the old bridge and looking due west," Zschomler said. "Very few drivers will have an opportunity to look directly to the west," she added.

In an interview, Zschomler explained that views of the Mississippi River are not part of what makes the Winona bridge eligible for the National Historic Register. The engineering of the old bridge is what makes the bridge historic in a legal sense, she said. "We try to separate that out from general visual issues," she said.

The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requires SHPO review of designs that have an impact on structures that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, such as the bridge. However, Mn/DOT has been given authority to act on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in making the ultimate determination of whether a design has adverse effects on the historic character of the bridge.

Essentially, Mn/DOT is regulating itself. A branch of Mn/DOT separate from the Winona Bridge Project team, the department's Cultural Resource Unit, will effectively replace FHWA oversight in determining whether Mn/DOT fairly balanced budgetary concerns and historic impact, for instance. Zschomler explained that it is very common for the FHWA to delegate responsibility for following the federal historic preservation guidelines to state transportation agencies.

Zschomler, Mn/DOT's historian, earlier this year made the official determination that the box girder design would have no adverse impact on the historic character of the old bridge. Historic impact is just one element designers must take into consideration, Zschomler noted, mentioning budgetary issues and compliance with regulations protecting migratory birds. "We try to balance all those needs and all those pressures," she said.

In a subsequent letter, Heidemann responded that while her concerns about the box girder remained, and while SHPO prefers the tied arch, all three styles meet federal standards. "Certainly cost is a legitimate concern. But we don't believe it is fair or accurate to select the low-cost solution on the basis that it is the only one meeting the Secretary of the Interior's Standards," she wrote.

In an interview with the Winona Post, Winona Bridge Project Manager Terry Ward asserted that SHPO had determined that the box girder would not cause any adverse historic effects and that SHPO's concerns had been of a purely aesthetic nature, not historic.

Heidemann specified in an interview, "the issue is the historic setting."

When asked about federal regulations on historic impact and SHPO's involvement, Ward failed mention requirements for SHPO and federal oversight under the NHPA. He said that Zschomler had reached a final determination that the box girder design had no adverse historic impact under a different law that also considers historic impact, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

When asked why SHPO was involved, Ward said that Mn/DOT had simply been asking the office for advice. "We may not need any review or concurrence from SHPO in Winona, but as a good partner we want to seek SHPO review and concurrence," Ward said. Heidemann and Zschomler, however, both stated that Mn/DOT is required by law to seek review from SHPO.

SHPO does not decide what bridge will be built and there are more things to consider than just historic impact, Heidemann said. She said that the fact that the old bridge is going to be left standing is a major victory for supporters of historic preservation. The issue of the box girder design and historic impact is an ongoing discussion between SHPO and Mn/DOT, she said. "There is a potential for adversely affecting views. We are waiting to see how the Department of Transportation addresses that concern."



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