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Final chance to comment on bridge plan Thursday (10/16/2013)
By Chris Rogers
County engineer, historic group criticize plan, process

Winonans are still voicing their diverse opinions, but the last word on the Winona bridge project is approaching. Thursday at the Winona Armory on Homer Road from 4 to 6 p.m. the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) will hold what may be the last public hearing before final approval on the project is issued.

This summer Mn/DOT released near-final plans for a long-planned overhaul of the river crossing in Winona. In the proposed plan a new bridge will be built just west of the existing bridge and traffic will shift to the new bridge while repairs are made to the old bridge. Once work is finished, both bridges will be open. The Winona Chamber of Commerce backed the plan, saying that any delay of the project would put local business at greater risk of the existing bridge being closed for repairs. Some citizens and local leaders balked at Mn/DOT's choice of a concrete box girder bridge for the new structure, which will block upriver views from the old bridge and which they felt was unattractive.

County engineer warns against rehab effort

Historic preservation rules may bar demolition of historic structures like the Winona bridge unless no prudent and feasible alternative exists, but "rehabilitating the existing bridge is not a prudent and feasible alternative," wrote Winona County Engineer Dave Kramer in an open letter to Mn/DOT. "In fact, it is neither prudent nor feasible" (original emphasis).

The proposed rehabilitation would not change the bridge's "fracture-critical" status, Kramer wrote, meaning that even after the work is done "a failure of a single component or connection on the bridge would result in a spectacular collapse of the entire structure." He continued, "It would be an unreasonable and imprudent risk to both public safety and commerce to continue extended use of the existing fracture-critical Winona bridge when a viable non-fracture-critical alternative exists (replacing it with a new bridge). In my opinion, it is not prudent (it does not show good judgment) to rehabilitate the existing fracture-critical bridge."

According to Mn/DOT, the proposed rehabilitation effort will cost more than the new bridge $56-$63 million compared to $52-$59 million and has a designed lifespan of 30 years, while the new bridge is meant to last 100 years. That is not a prudent use of tax-payer dollars, either, Kramer commented. "It is not feasible to spend $60 million, which is more than the price of a new bridge, for a rehabilitation that buys only 30 years of service. In my opinion, it is not feasible (it is not economically practical) to rehabilitate the existing bridge."

Lay people have also raised this point, as well. Why are federal rules forcing us to temporarily repair the old bridge at the same cost as a new bridge, Winonan Thomas Mauszycki asked during a City Council hearing on the project. He called that plan "a poor monetary decision" and added, "It's our money and we ought to spend it constructively."

Winona County Commissioner Greg Olson also raised concerns about the short lifespan of the rehabilitation project, noting that if the historic bridge is demolished in 30 years it may well be replaced with another concrete girder bridge or an expansion of the new bridge. Mn/DOT officials confirmed this is a possibility.

Mn/DOT Project Engineer Terry Ward declined to respond to Kramer's critique or comment on whether replacing the old bridge was prudent. He did note that the approach spans leading up to the old bridge are expected to last 100 years after the proposed repairs.

Although the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) opposed the box girder bridge chosen for the new bridge design, it called plans to rehabilitate the old bridge a victory for historic preservation. Local preservation supporters and other citizens have also expressed support for keeping the old bridge.

Local historic group disappointed

The city of Winona Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) issued a statement on Tuesday expressing dissatisfaction with Mn/DOT's failure to seek the input of the local preservation group when deciding what new bridge design would be best for historic Winona. Some committee members felt more strongly than others, but the group agreed upon a statement conveying "concern and disappointment in the lack of early and continuing consultation with our commission in regards to the Winona bridge project."

In an interview, HPC Chairwoman Lynn Englund explained, "We were not involved in the decision-making and we did not think that was right."

The statement, a letter to SHPO and Mn/DOT, encourages the agencies to "make a concerted effort to work with local heritage commissions and local constituency groups in these processes and before major decision are made such as structural design," when they begin planning for future projects.

Mn/DOT did not meet with the HPC in 2013. The council did not seek a recommendation from the HPC either, though some HPC members spoke at a public hearing to caution the council prior to its approval of the box girder bridge design.

Early in planning for other nearby bridge projects, such as the Hastings bridge, Mn/DOT met with the city historic preservation commissions to seek their input.

The HPC members are appointed by the council to advance the city's historic districts and to encourage preservation.

Hearing Thursday at the Winona Armory, 4 to 6 p.m.

During the hearing local citizens and organizations will have a chance to speak their minds on the project. Mn/DOT will consider their comments before it drafts a final determination on whether the project meets federal requirements to consider aesthetic, cultural, economic, environmental, and historic concerns and choose the alternative that best minimizes any negative affects.

In its Environmental Assessment, Mn/DOT has proposed that rehabilitating the old bridge is prudent and feasible and therefore required by federal historic preservation rules, that the box girder bridge creates the least negative historic impact, and that arch and cable bridge designs would detract from the historic bridge.

In addition to the public hearing, local residents can send written comments to Mn/DOT until October 30. Once the window for public input closes, Mn/DOT will send draft findings to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for approval. There are three directions the project could go:

1. A Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI) This finding would be the final approval needed for construction. Unless public comment steers project leaders in another direction, the project is likely to be granted a FONSI.

2. Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Mn/DOT or the FHWA could determine that a more in-depth environmental review is needed for the current proposal.

3. Rework plans Mn/DOT could withdraw and revise its proposal. This would likely require restarting a few months of review by other agencies.

Written comments can be mailed to: Mr. Terry Ward, Designer Engineer, Minnesota Department of Transportation, 2900 48th Street NW, Rochester MN 55901. 


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