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Bridge bargaining begins (08/07/2013)
By Chris Rogers
After Monday night's meeting, the Winona City Council has an idea of what the Minnesota Department of Transport (Mn/DOT) is willing to offer the city in return for its blessing on the Highway 43 Bridge project.

While Mn/DOT is seeking council approval for the new bridge proposal, there is no formal back-and-forth negotiation over details in the municipal consent process. Mn/DOT outlines its design and the city accepts the plan, denies it, or accepts the project with conditions. If the city adds conditions, Mn/DOT may choose to comply voluntarily with the conditions or begin an appeals process involving mediators appointed by the agency and the city. If Mn/DOT disputes any city-imposed conditions, the resulting arbitration battle could delay the project for a year or more.

However, Mn/DOT's interest in seeing the project finished in a timely manner might make it more receptive to conditions. Additionally, several council members have listed speedy construction as their top priority for the new bridge expected to connect Winona to Wisconsin for the next 100 years.

The new bridge will be constructed just upstream of the current river span, with construction expected to start as early as mid-2014. After the new, two-lane bridge is completed, Mn/DOT crews will begin repairing the current bridge, with the entire project expected to be complete as soon as 2020.

Mn/DOT resists bridge type change

Barring a public outcry at an upcoming public hearing (see sidebar), a change in bridge design is unlikely. Mn/DOT claims that it does not have the money for a tied arch bridge and any change in design would significantly delay construction, Mn/DOT Project Engineer Terry Ward told the council. Mn/DOT's recommended box-girder design has been criticized by locals because it blocks views of the Mississippi. It has also been criticized by the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) because of its negative impact on the current historic bridge. Mn/DOT's resistance to changing the design, and warning of delays, further steeled the council's willingness to accept the box girder design. For three out of seven council members, speed is their top priority. Another three members have indicated they would not oppose the box girder design.

Council members asked about the decision to have the new bridge land at the same intersection as the old bridge, to which Mn/DOT consultants responded that due to traffic concerns, other nearby landing locations were not viable options.

Mn/DOT proffers deal on trail, Marina

Ward indicated that Mn/DOT was flexible on the issue of adding a trail connecting the dike bike path and the new bridge's bicycle and pedestrian path. Under the current proposal, the new 12-foot path shrinks to five feet once it reaches the bridge landing on Fourth Street, and wraps around to the corner of Huff and Fourth streets, but any additional trails or other "park amenities" would be paid for in full by the city. "We're committed to work with the city and see if we can make that happen," Ward said about a path connecting the bridge and the Levee, without saying whether Mn/DOT would be willing to help fund the path.

Mn/DOT's budget proposal calls for the city to contribute $200,000 for park amenities, though the details of what would be included have yet to be determined, according to Ward.

Mn/DOT announced a couple offers to sweeten the pot. In a statement that drew surprised looks from city staff and council members alike, Ward said that, currently, a Mn/DOT-owned right-of-way bisects the Dick's Marina building, which is owned by the city. "It runs right through the men's room," one Mn/DOT official joked. That means that for years, half of that city building has sat on land owned by the state. However, the Mn/DOT is willing to "clean up" that right-of-way line, Ward said.

Ward also announced that Mn/DOT would be willing to pay 70 percent of the cost of a new traffic light at Fourth and Huff streets, if the city wants one. Mn/DOT will be paying the same amount to install a temporary light to manage traffic during construction anyway, Ward said.

Important questions linger

A number of details regarding the impact of the bridge project remain up in the air. How much the city will pay for the bridge, the aesthetic adjustments Mn/DOT will consider, how much the agency is willing to spend on those aesthetics, how much the city can expect to earn from an easement agreement for city property, and what exactly the land west of the new bridge could be used for are still unclear.

Mn/DOT has proposed an estimated $713,000 as the city's contribution to the project. "That is very much subject to change," Ward said, adding the city cost could be more or less. The cost share is subject to later negotiations, to take place before the projected start of construction in 2015, and will be tied to percentages of the actual costs for the project.

Any aesthetic concerns, Ward informed the council, will be considered by the project's latest committee: the Visual Quality Committee (VQC). Though how much power they will have and how much money Mn/DOT is willing to devote to recommendations from the committee remains to be seen. Local officials and residents have asked about whether potential substantial changes to the proposal would be under the committee's purview. Mn/DOT has resisted any changes to the number one local aesthetic concern: the bridge type. Agency officials have been noncommittal in response to local requests for lookout decks, or "bump outs," along the bridge path.

At a recent meeting, Chamber of Commerce and city officials asked Mn/DOT to consider lookout decks, or "bump outs," along the pedestrian path. In response, a consultant chimed in that such lookouts are a common feature on a bridge of this size. Mn/DOT officials hesitated, then nodded silently.

At Monday's meeting, Ward explained that the VQC will have input on issues including the choice of colors, retaining wall treatments, and pier types. "And bump outs," interjected Mayor Mark Peterson.

Another possibility prized by Peterson may be more complicated than previously reported. Peterson, council member Pam Eyden, and the Levee Park Committee have expressed excitement over the possibility that the city could acquire the blocks immediately west of the new bridge nearly all of which may be subject to demolition. Most of the excitement was over use of the space for parkland to connect to Levee Park. If current owners pass on their right to buy back the land, the city could get the land for $1 per parcel, Ward confirmed. However, plans for more intensive use of the space, such as a visitors center or a spiral bike path leading straight to the levee, would be more problematic. If the city wanted to redevelop the land, Mn/DOT would need the approval of state auditors to sell it to the city without charging the market price, Mn/DOT Right-of-Way Engineer Mark Trogstad-Isaacson explained. Any structures that would extend beneath the bridges, even park structures, would need to go through a special permitting process and historic review from Mn/DOT, he added.

Chance to weigh in, learn more

Voice your opinion

Winonans will have a chance to sound off on the bridge project before the City Council votes on accepting Mn/DOT's recommended design at a public hearing on August 19 at 6:30 p.m. at city hall. The council will listen to public comments before making a decision on the request for municipal consent. Public comments will be allowed during the hearing.

Citizens may also call, email, or write to the mayor and council members before the meeting. Contact information for the mayor and council members is available at www.cityofwinona.com/city-services/city-administration/winona-city-council and in the telephone book.

Ask Mn/DOT

Mn/DOT will host an informational session for the public on August 12 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Winona Armory. A formal presentation from Mn/DOT right-of-way engineers and Mn/DOT Archaeologist/Historian Kristine Zschomler will be given at 5 p.m. This is not a public hearing.

Interested citizens may also call the Mn/DOT District 6 Rochester Office at 507-286-7500.

Environmental meetings

As part of environmental approval under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Mn/DOT will be required to host public hearings on the impact of the bridge project sometime this fall. However, the purpose of such hearings are not to gauge public support for the project but to determine whether the project follows federal law. NEPA takes into consideration some historic impact as well as environmental concerns; however, it is separate from the National Historic Preservation Act, which is the context for debates between SHPO and Mn/DOT on the historic impact of the project. Mn/DOT is responsible for evaluating itself under the National Historic Preservation Act, with approval from the Federal Highway Administration. 


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