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Mn/DOT looks for city's blessing (08/04/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
     Mn/DOT will begin seeking the city's consent for the Winona Bridge Project on Monday.
Will Winona give the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) the "green light" on the Highway 43 Bridge Project, or pressure the agency to make changes? The city is primed for debate between those concerned for the historic setting and scenic views of the current bridge and those who want to have the project finished as soon as possible.

Mn/DOT hopes to get approval from the City Council this month in order to move forward on the project. On Monday, the council will be presented for the first time with the latest design. City approval, or municipal consent, as it is called, is an opportunity for Winona to voice its priorities. For those who want design changes, it is an opportunity to exert leverage over the end product. For those who want the project to be finished as soon as possible, any delay in approving the project would be regrettable.

While Mn/DOT is trying to be more responsive to local communities, "nudges from the community are appropriate" and "rolling over is not advised" when dealing with the agency, said Director of the University of Minnesota Center for Changing Landscapes and Levee Park designer Dr. Mary Vogel, in an interview with the Winona Post to discuss the bridge project and her work with Mn/DOT.

Some community members have expressed discontent with design choices, but, during interviews last week, the mayor and City Council members did not express any intention to resist Mn/DOT's request for consent or to seek design changes. For many council members, getting the project done as soon as possible is their primary objective.

The issue that has elicited the most visceral reactions from citizens and city leaders is the choice of bridge type. Mn/DOT is seeking to build the least expensive of three alternatives: a bridge supported by a concrete substructure, appropriately titled the box girder. As proposed, the new bridge would sit higher than the old bridge, so that the concrete substructure of the new bridge will block upriver views from the center of the old bridge. Former Winona Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Bob Sebo described it as "godawful." It will be "like looking at a concrete wall," said one citizen.

The point of the bridge is to get people across the river, council member George Borzyskowski said. "I would like to see something nice, something appealing, but how appealing are bridges?" In regard to upriver views being blocked by the new bridge, he said, "When we're driving, we're supposed to watching where we're going and not sightseeing."

Council member Michelle Alexander concurred with the need for function over form. "My main concern is that we need a bridge." Alexander said that she wanted to see the project finished as soon as possible for fear that the current bridge might be closed or otherwise "go out" before the new bridge was built.

Council member Paul Double agreed. "The economic destruction that would be caused if that access to Wisconsin does not remain open is so extreme. Anybody that attempts to do anything that would delay that construction is walking a plank ready to go over the side."

Double said he does not want to delay "just because somebody wants an eagle at the top of the bridge." When asked if he thought there was a real risk of the current bridge collapsing or needing to be closed, Double said he was not concerned about that, but rather what would happen if a vehicle or boat collided with the bridge.

"Traffic flow is my main concern," said council member Allyn Thurley. Making sure that trucks can easily navigate the Winona and Fourth streets intersection is a priority for Alexander. Under the current proposal, the Winona landing area will be smaller than in previous plans.

Thurley said he wants to learn more about how traffic will flow; however, "I'm not a traffic engineer," he said. Thurley explained that he will rely on the expertise of city and Mn/DOT engineers.

Council member George Borzyskowski said he did not have concerns about traffic or other design details. "Every project that comes up always comes under great scrutiny and great criticism," he said. "Let's let the engineers engineer this out."

The question of historic impact is another contended issue, one that is separate, at least legally speaking, from aesthetics. The Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) called it "unattractive and obstructive." In letters, SHPO told Mn/DOT that such "constrained and unpleasant" views from and of the old bridge could have a negative historic impact on the historic old bridge and said that SHPO prefers arch and cable designs, which would support the new bridge from above.

By federal law, Mn/DOT must consider historic impact in making design decisions. SHPO gets to weigh in, but a Mn/DOT historian makes the final call on what the historic impact is. Mn/DOT's conclusion is exactly the opposite of SHPO's: the arch and cable designs would have a negative historic impact.

"It surprises me that the historical architect expert thinks the girder is a better choice," said council member Pam Eyden.

Winona Mayor and Winona County Historic Preservation Society Director Mark Peterson said he was siding with Mn/DOT, not SHPO, on the question of historic impact from the rival bridge designs. "Aesthetically it's an improvement," he said of the arch or cable designs. However, "I think it probably does have more of an historic impact than the box girder."

Planning Commission member Brian Buelow said he does not have a strong preference for the cable or arch designs, but that "they should be looked at. Let's not just go along with what the DOT says." The city should take its time and make sure the end product is something residents can live with for decades, he advised.

"There are a lot of things about the box girder that are unfortunate," Eyden said, but what can be done about it is unclear. One question she wants to have answered is, "Why can't it sit at road grade level like the other one?"

Despite her concerns with the box girder design, Eyden said she will not advocate for the arch or cable designs. After talking to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services officials about the impact on migratory birds, she changed her mind on the issue. "The grand arch would be a much more pleasant look, but it presents an even greater threat to birds in fog. It would take a toll on birds," she said.

While the box girder might block views, Peterson praised Mn/DOT for seeking out citizens to join a Visual Quality Committee to make it as appealing as possible. The Visual Quality Committee will consider such aesthetic considerations as colors, concrete finishes, and railings, Mn/DOT officials explained. Area leaders have been hopeful that the committee might also consider more substantial aspects, such as scenic viewing stations along the bike and pedestrian path.

Eyden and Peterson also expressed excitement about the possibility for turning the blocks west of the new bridge into park land that could tie into Levee Park and downtown. Such an arrangement would require cooperation from Mn/DOT.

Council member Gerry Krage could not be reached for comment.

Mn/DOT will present its plans for the bridge to the council on Monday, August 5, at 5:15 p.m. at city hall. This meeting is open to the public. 


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