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Mn/DOT restricts access to bridge historians (10/20/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Spiral staircase from bridge considered

Many public servants whose salaries are paid by taxpayers go out of their way to be available and helpful when members of the public or the press come calling. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) took a more guarded stance last week.

When the Winona Post attempted to contact St. Paul-based Mn/DOT historian and leader of the agency’s Cultural Resources Unit (CRU) Kristen Zschomler, Winona Bridge Project Engineer Terry Ward replied instead, telling the Post in an email, “submit all inquiries regarding the Winona Bridge project directly to me.”

In another email he wrote, “From this point forward, please submit all questions regarding the Winona Bridge project directly to me, preferably in writing.”

The Winona Post called Zschomler to ask whether a proposal by local residents for a spiral staircase or ramp to descend from the new bridge’s bike lane and land at Second or Third Street might require renewed historic review by her office.

The Winona Post had also attempted to contact Ward with questions that pertained to his role in the agency, but Ward did not return repeated calls for comment. Instead he replied to phone calls with emails, insisting that any questions be submitted in writing.

Mn/DOT is responsible for regulating itself when complying with federal laws that protect historic and archaeologic resources. Mn/DOT has its own office of historians and archaeologists, the CRU, that makes official determinations on what is best for historic properties. When asked if Mn/DOT’s financial interests affected the CRU’s recent ruling that the least expensive option for the Winona bridge project would also be the best for the historic bridge and historic Winona, Mn/DOT officials stressed that the CRU is separate from and independent of budget-oriented project engineers and district offices and has little communication with project leaders outside of its formal role in deciding whether projects meet historic preservation laws. However, Ward was informed of the Post’s call to Zschomler within two hours, and he quickly insisted that all questions be routed through him.

Spiral staircase discussed; Mn/DOT cannot say if it is realistic

The idea of a spiral staircase or ramp descending from the new bridge’s bicycle and pedestrian lane and connecting to Second or Third Street was first raised by the Levee Park Committee’s landscape architect Matt Tucker at a July meeting of the committee. Tucker presented images of a spiral ramp coming down from a historic bridge that provides pedestrian access to a riverfront park in Knoxville, Tenn., and suggested that something similar might be possible in Winona.

Earlier this month, the Winona Bridge Visual Quality Committee (VQC), a Mn/DOT committee of local residents providing input on aesthetic details of the bridge design including colors and overlooks, discussed the idea. Committee members said that Mn/DOT engineers and consultants gave them the impression that the concept was a real possibility. When asked directly, Mn/DOT officials declined to confirm the concept’s feasibility with the Winona Post.

“We can’t say one way or the other,” said Mn/DOT District Six Community Relations Coordinator Kristin Kammueller, when asked if the idea of any kind of stair, ramp, or elevator was realistic.

“We will let them make that recommendation,” said Ward, referring to the committee. Ward said that from an engineering perspective it was possible. It may be a regulatory improbability, however.

When Tucker and his colleague, landscape architect Mary Vogel, brought up the idea, they explained that historic preservation laws would likely apply if the staircase were added as part of the Mn/DOT bridge project. Rules requiring Mn/DOT to avoid negative visual impacts on the adjacent historic bridge might well make it an impossibility, they said. If it were constructed later, using local dollars not subject to historic preservation laws, perhaps it could be done, they suggested.

Ward said that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might require any such project to be wheelchair accessible and that historic review might be required. Zschomler and other members of the CRU could not be reached for comment on whether the proposal would require historic review by their office.

Levee Park advocates and citizens interested in the bridge project have both noted that Mn/DOT’s proposed layout would require cyclists and pedestrians trying to go from downtown to Latsch Island to go all the way to Fourth Street in order to get on the bridge path. Additionally, pedestrians would have to walk all the way around the block north of the YMCA or cross the busy Fourth and Winona Street intersection, where vehicles turning right onto the bridge do not have to stop.

“We want the bridge to be a place that is welcoming to pedestrians and bicyclists,” said VQC member Vicki Englich. “To me that’s a no-brainer — the greater the access, the better,” she added. Winona City Council member Pam Eyden and Mike Kennedy are members of both the VQC and the Levee Park Committee and have advocated for bicycle and pedestrian access. They did not return requests for comment. 


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