On Monday, at one of the few meetings on the Winona bridge project open to the public, aesthetics, historic impact, and bridge design were topics of citizen concern. At the meeting, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) continued to defend its recommended concrete box girder type bridge — the least expensive of three types considered — and made the case against the aesthetic value of other bridge types. An upcoming City Council decision on municipal consent may well be the determining factor in what sort of new bridge is built in Winona.
Tied arch bridges span the Mississippi River in La Crosse.
At a Monday meeting, Mn/DOT defended its decision that the superstructure of such bridges would adversely affect the historic Winona bridge.
Bridge type: can
we change it?
At a meeting with Mn/DOT officials on Tuesday, Winona County Board member Greg Olson expressed his concerns about the bridge. Project Engineer Terry Ward confirmed that the rehabilitation of the old bridge, which will cost around $4 million more than the new bridge, is estimated to last 30 years, compared to the 100-year projected lifespan of the new bridge.
"What if there is a citizen outcry that says: 'We don't want this?'" Olson asked. In 30 years, the city's skyline could be gone, he said, if the girder bridge is gone and all that remains is the box girder bridge. "Could that be addressed or are we stuck with the concrete design?"
Ward responded that Mn/DOT needs municipal consent and a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) during an upcoming federal environmental review. Once municipal consent and the FONSI are in hand, Mn/DOT has authority to construct the bridge, he said.
The environmental review process includes Mn/DOT's completed historical review that determined the box girder bridge type would have no significant historic impact, while an arch or cable bridge would have adverse historic impact. Unless new information develops, that review is over, said Mn/DOT Historian/Archaelogist Kristine Zschomler. The public can comment during the environmental assessment and at any time to Mn/DOT, she said, but it will not change Mn/DOT's historic impact decision. The historic impact is not up to a vote, she explained.
The public can comment during the environmental assessment, but the purpose of that review is not to determine whether a majority of citizens approve of the project, but rather whether it follows federal legal requirements for environmental, historic, and other protections. If the Winona City Council grants municipal consent — as it appears willing to do — Mn/DOT's proposed box girder bridge may soon become a reality.
Mn/DOT defends blocked views
"There are a lot of people who still want to see the river," one local resident told Mn/DOT Project Engineer Terry Ward at the meeting.
The view of the Mississippi River Valley from the existing bridge is not historic, Ward stated during a presentation. Mn/DOT admits that its proposed box girder bridge will block upriver views from the old bridge, but "that's a visual quality issue," he said. "It's not a historic view."
That was the determination of Zschomler, who is charged with insuring that Mn/DOT abides by federal protections for historic places. As is common, Mn/DOT both conducts projects and evaluates their historic impact with minimal oversight from the Federal Highway Administration. While she and her staff are employed by the agency they are regulating, Zschomler reminded citizens that they are professionally qualified historians.
Mn/DOT is required by federal law to seek the input of the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) when reviewing a project's historic impact. "SHPO represents the interests of the people of the state of Minnesota" in making sure that historic places that matter to them are protected, Zschomler explained to the crowd at the meeting. "But SHPO doesn't make the call." Mn/DOT makes the call. If it were up to SHPO, Winonans might be looking at a different set of bridge plans.
Last month the Winona Post obtained leaked letters detailing an argument between SHPO and Mn/DOT on the historic impact of the project. Mn/DOT historians and the SHPO historians came to opposite conclusions on what historic impact various bridge types would have. Zschomler argued that since the view was not what makes the Winona bridge historic, the box girder would not have any adverse impact on the historic character and that an arch or cable bridge would have a negative impact. SHPO argued that the box girder style might have a negative effect on the historic setting and that an arch or cable bridge was preferable. Search "Letters: Mn/DOT, SHPO split on bridge design" at www.winonapost.com to read the full report on the interagency debate.
"SHPO does not agree with the box girder, right?" David Wurch, of Goodview, asked Zschomler at the meeting.
"That's not true," Zschomler replied. Ultimately, Mn/DOT and SHPO agreed that the box girder meets the technical, federal standards for historic review. However, SHPO stated that arch and cable bridge designs would meet those standards as well, while Mn/DOT contends that only the box girder meets the standards. Also, SHPO stated though the box girder meets the standards, it is still concerned about its impact on the historic setting of the old bridge, in particular, views of and from the bridge.
Since then, Mn/DOT has presented SHPO's opinion on the bridge types as being in agreement with its own. At a July meeting that was closed to the public, Ward told local officials that SHPO concurred with Mn/DOT that the box girder met federal standards, and failed to mention SHPO's concerns about the box girder and its determination that the tied arch and cable stay met those standards, as well.
Mn/DOT has spoken out not only to defend its historic analysis of the Winona bridge project, but also its historic review process in general. When questioned about the opposite opinions asserted by Mn/DOT and SHPO, Mn/DOT officials noted that the historians charged with evaluating projects are very separate from local Mn/DOT district offices, which are responsible for overseeing the projects and staying on budget. That separation helps avoid conflicts of interest within the agency during the historical review process, they explained. However, at the meeting, Zschomler told the audience that she works very closely Mn/DOT district offices.
Zschomler also said that Mn/DOT has worked very closely with the city of Winona Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), a group of volunteer advocates for historic Winona and the city's official board for reviewing historic impacts. Actually, Mn/DOT has not met with the HPC this year. The state agency has rescheduled meetings with the city group multiple times. Now it appears that Mn/DOT will not meet with the HPC before the Winona City Council considers granting municipal consent for the bridge project.
Obstructed view from cable, arch bridges shown
Some have made the case that while Winona will lose upriver views from the old bridge with the box girder design, the view from the new bridge will be more open. Ward pointed out that the superstructures of arch and cable bridges somewhat restrict views from the new bridge, while a box girder bridge would be open to the sky. Ward showed Winonans artist's renderings of the views from the new bridge if it were a box girder, cable, or arch, respectively.
When Ward showed those views, he presented one of the most obstructed vantage points on cable and arch bridges. To explain, most of the center span of a cable or arch bridge is held up by comparatively thin cables. Throughout most of the center span, one can look out and see the river with only the narrow cables obstructing the view. However, at two points of the center span, both arch and cable bridges require large concrete structures — concrete towers in the case of cable bridges — to support the superstructure from which the cables hang. If a person is standing right in front of one of these structures, the view of the river is blocked in that particular spot by the concrete structure. The point of the span that was chosen for the artist's renderings was very close to those structures, so that in the renderings the structures blocked much of the view. There are few vantage points on an arch or cable stay bridge that would have obscured more of the river view than those chosen for the illustrations Ward presented.
When asked why that vantage was chosen to present the arch and cable bridges, Ward explained that it lined up with the vantage point used for depicting the box girder, shown at recent, previous Winona meetings. When asked if the choice of a vantage point that lines up with one of the most obstructed views on an arch and cable bridge was intentional or a coincidence, Ward initially declined to answer. When pressed further, he said it was not intentional.
"I was surprised at how attractive you make the girder look," commented Dee Cipov, of Winona, after Ward's presentation.
She and other citizens did not call for Mn/DOT to change bridge types, but urged the agency to replace as much of the new bridge's concrete barriers with metal railings as possible, in order to maintain river views.
Ward responded that replacing some of the concrete barriers on the new bridge with railings is within the scope of the newly formed Visual Quality Committees, a group of local citizens who can make non-binding recommendations to Mn/DOT on aesthetic decisions. The railing cannot be used at all for the barrier that separates the bike path from the roadway, however, Ward said. In previous interviews with the Winona Post, Ward said that the bridge design is not within the Visual Quality Committee's scope.