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Bridge style about birds, history, Mn/DOT claims (10/06/2013)
By Chris Rogers
In a document seeking final approval for the Winona bridge project the Minnesota Department of Transportaton (Mn/DOT) stated that historic impact and migratory bird concerns drove its decision to select the concrete box girder bridge type over arch and cable stay designs. That assertion comes despite historic preservation officials' opposition to the concrete box design and the example of other Mississippi River bridge projects, such as Hastings, where migratory bird concerns posed little problem for arch bridges.

The cost savings realized by selecting the cheapest option was a bonus, but not a deciding factor, Mn/DOT wrote in its Environmental Assessment for the project. At local public meetings, financial concerns figured more prominently in explanations of the bridge type choice. Mn/DOT does not have enough money for anything other than the concrete box girder bridge, Project Engineer Terry Ward told Winonans.

Last month, Mn/DOT announced plans to propose the cheapest option for another upcoming Winona infrastructure project: the Gilmore Avenue and Highway 61 intersection. In past public meetings, after indications that Mn/DOT might pursue the "minimum build option" for that project, citizens criticized Mn/DOT District Six for spending lavishly in Rochester and skimping on Winona.

Mn/DOT employs historians who have authority over determining whether the agency followed historic requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Mn/DOT is required to consult with the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), but it does not have to listen, as evidenced by letters between the agencies. When discussing historic impact in local meetings and in its Environmental Assessment, Mn/DOT repeatedly stated that SHPO concurs with Mn/DOT historians that the concrete box girder meets federal standards. That statement glosses over SHPO statements decrying the box girder as "unattractive and obstructive" and "constrained and unpleasant," warned against its impact on the historic views of and from the current bridge, and advocated for an arch bridge.

After Mn/DOT historians seemingly overstated the added cost of an arch bridge saying it would cost "many tens of millions of dollars more than the girder type" while estimates released later indicated it would cost $14 million more and stressed concerns over migratory birds, SHPO backed down, honoring Mn/DOT's need to consider financial concerns and follow environmental regulations.

Mn/DOT historians also asserted that arch and cable stay bridges would not meet historic standards because they would be more visually prominent than a concrete box girder bridge. SHPO's head, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Howard, opposed Mn/DOT on that determination, saying that arch and cable stay bridges did meet standards and were preferable to the concrete box girder. Unlike recent bridge projects in other communities where local historic preservation groups were consulted, Mn/DOT officials did not meet with the Winona Historic Preservation Commission to discuss the recommended bridge layout.

In its Environmental Assessment, Mn/DOT mentions that the bridge will alter views of and from the historic bridge, but that "Mn/DOT is consulting with a Visual Quality Review Committee regarding the visual quality aspects of the design." However, Mn/DOT has been explicit that the local Visual Quality Committee does not have any say in what many citizens and committee members have deemed the most visually important aspect of the design: the bridge type.

Though SHPO, local officials, and citizens blasted the concrete girder design for detracting from the beauty of Winona's historic bridge and replacing expansive views of Mississippi River Valley with "a concrete wall," the proposed Environmental Assessment states that the box girder design would have no adverse historic effects while arch and cable designs would "block views" and "conflict visually with the original design." Unless some new historic evidence is brought forward during the Environmental Assessment comment period, citizens have no authority to question those rulings by Mn/DOT's professionally-trained historians, Mn/DOT Historian Kristine Zchomler claimed in an interview.

Mn/DOT: bird rules gave us no choice

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act "will likely require selection of the lowest bridge profile," Zschomler told SHPO officials. Mn/DOT representatives stressed the seriousness of migratory bird impact when explaining the bridge type decision with locals, as well. At public meetings, Project Engineer Terry Ward emphasized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) concern about migratory birds colliding with a new superstructure in their flightpath when describing Mn/DOT's decision to recommend a concrete box girder bridge.

Objects in the flightpath of an important migration route are subject to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the FWS did advise Mn/DOT that, in general, lower profile bridges are better for birds, but, in describing migratory bird rules and the FWS as inflexible, Mn/DOT officials misrepresented their dealings with the wildlife agency.

Mn/DOT recently worked out a deal with the FWS to build an arch bridge in Hastings in exchange for conservation funding. In the Hastings bridge replacement project, the FWS had a chance to totally eliminate an obstacle from the flightpath as opposed to the Winona project, where birds will have to navigate the superstructure of the old bridge regardless of what new bridge is built but, in Hastings, the wildlife agency apparently determined that $100,000 in migratory bird conservation funding would help do more avian good than a concrete box girder bridge would.

The FWS had a few informal meetings with Mn/DOT over two years ago, in which federal wildlife officials advised the agency that concrete box girder bridges are generally better for birds. At that time, however, Mn/DOT was still talking about replacing the Winona bridge. Putting a new structure right next to an old one has less of an impact as far as birds are concerned, FWS officials said in an interview.

"What Mn/DOT did was explore the least expensive option and try to make it fit as much as they could," Winona County Commissioner Greg Olson said. "The public is funding this project and yet the public has not had input on the design. The proposal is simply a mockery of the process and an exercise to justify the lowest cost structure," he added.

For more information on SHPO's opposition to the box girder bridge, the Hastings arch bridge, and the FWS's stance on migratory birds and bridges, search "Mn/DOT, SHPO split on bridge" and "How other cities avoided box girder bridges" at www.winonapost.com.

What drove local support?

While Mn/DOT asserts that concern for what was best for birds and historic Winona led it to choose the box girder bridge, other factors played into the Winona City Council's support. Concern that the existing bridge might be closed for repairs, devastating local businesses, while Mn/DOT tried to find more money for an arch bridge, spurred at least three council members to back Mn/DOT's proposal. In 2008, a sudden, 11-day bridge closure sent shudders through the local business community. The bridge superstructure has been rated "poor" by Mn/DOT inspectors since 2010.

While many citizens decried the concrete box girder as aesthetically inferior, others supported it. "This is the most cost effective bridge the best value for the dollar," Mississippi Welders Supply owner Donald Peterson advised the council at a public hearing. The Chamber of Commerce also urged the council not to delay the project.

Keeping the old bridge standing is not just a win for businesses who would have been crushed by a closure, it is a victory for historic preservation advocates, Mayor Mark Peterson said. SHPO said it did not prefer the box girder but was happy the old bridge was surviving, he pointed out. Peterson added that he agrees with Mn/DOT that the box girder bridge "does have the least impact on the historic bridge."

Council member Pam Eyden said that, for her, the migratory bird issue tipped the scales toward supporting Mn/DOT proposal.

When they granted municipal consent for the project in August, council members attempted to divorce themselves from the concrete box girder design by voting for the project but asking Mn/DOT to "leave the bridge structure out of it until you get further." Mn/DOT officials explained after the vote that they are not required to come back to the council to talk about the bridge type and that the council effectively approved the recommended bridge type.  


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