Comment cards slid quietly into a black box. A stenographer sat in a lonely corner of the Winona Armory's huge gymnasium. No one visited her. Two or three dozen citizens filtered through the Minnesota Department of Transportation's (Mn/DOT) final public hearing on the Winona bridge project last Thursday, but the hall remained relatively quiet.
It was not a hearing in the traditional sense. There was no microphone through which citizens spoke; it was arranged like an open house. Apart from asking visitors as they filed past rows of posters, neither the press nor fellow citizens knew what formal comments were being made.
After years of planning an overhauled river crossing in Winona, Mn/DOT released plans this summer to repair the current, historic bridge and build a new concrete bridge beside it. The Winona City Council approved the project in August. Thursday's hearing and a written comment period, open until October 30, represent the last chance for local citizens to influence major design decisions.
"They're just trying to ram it through," Winonan Ted Hazelton said of Mn/DOT in an interview at the event.
It seems to be a done deal, Winonan John Berg agreed. Wisconsin resident Sandy Oscamp said he thought Mn/DOT ought to tear the old bridge down because of the high cost of rehabilitation, but "I think that's already been decided."
"There have been many opportunities and hearings for the public to comment; I'm not sure they are being listened to," Berg stated.
"It seems to me that the people of Winona have not been heard," said former Winona City Council member Tim Breza. When asked about the public hearing, he responded, "How many people have the time, the tenacity, and the understanding of a technical document" like this. Breza hefted the 416-page Environmental Assessment, Mn/DOT's explanation of its decision-making on the project, which was available for citizens to read during the two-hour event. "And they're supposed to comment?" Breza said smiling. The whole process intimidates most of the public "and consequently, Mn/DOT gets what they want," he said. Those who do speak out "are a minority. Their consideration is marginalized by the bureaucracy."
All of the project's most consequential decisions were "developed without a lot of public input," Breza continued. "And then brought before the council in such a way that there was not time to consider alternatives."
"I think the council was heavily influenced by businesses in town that were afraid of the bridge closing," Berg commented. That concern is an important one, he said, but the result was "rushing us into a bridge that not everybody was happy with."
"I'm glad that they're moving forward with it," said area resident Tony Speltz. "We need a new bridge," another visitor chimed in.
"They need to scrap it and start over," Hazelton said, gesturing to the plans. He said he did not believe Mn/DOT's statements that it could not afford the additional $14 million cost of an arch bridge. "The fact that Mn/DOT didn't talk with [the city of Winona Historic Preservation Commission] was wrong," he added, a sentiment that was echoed by Breza.
"I'm glad the new bridge isn't landing in my front yard," said John Finn, who lives near Huff Street. He would have liked to see sound barriers, but acknowledged that many would have balked at the added visual obstruction.
Breza said it does not make sense to spend roughly $60 million, which is greater than the cost of the new bridge, on a rehabilitation that will still leave the old bridge fracture critical — meaning that structural components of the bridge lack redundancy, and the failure of one key component could cause its collapse — and is only planned to last 30 years. "It doesn't compute," he said. "And it doesn't solve the problem." Berg agreed. Winona and Minnesota would be better off if the current bridge were replaced with an identical new bridge after the construction of its companion bridge, Breza said. If Mn/DOT wants to keep the historic bridge "we should have an arch bridge to complement it," he commented.
Looking up from his comment card to the quiet gymnasium, Berg said, "I was surprised there wasn't a presentation" followed by a traditional public hearing. In that sort of hearing, like-minded citizens like Breza, Berg, and Finn might have gained momentum from each other's comments, but at last Thursday's comment session, they had no idea whether other people were thinking the same thing they were.
Until October 30, Mn/DOT is still accepting comments on the Winona bridge project by mail at: Mr. Terry Ward, Designer Engineer, Minnesota Department of Transportation, 2900 48th Street NW, Rochester MN 55901.