Soon-to-be finalized plans for addressing the jumbled intersections at Highway 61 and Gilmore Avenue drew criticism from some local leaders this month. The intersection is Winona's north-facing facade, a bustling business district, and the site of a long-anticipated Minnesota Department of Transportation's (Mn/DOT) project. Mn/DOT and Winona officials have discussed and studied potential fixes for years. Earlier this year, the agency announced plans for minimal improvements; those plans were both criticized and supported at a recent meeting of local officials and business leaders.
The intersection of Gilmore Avenue and Highway 14/61 might be better called the intersection of Orrin Street, Gilmore Avenue, the highway, two frontage roads, and one nameless street (also known as No Name Drive). The skewed tangle of roadways has seen more than its fair share of accidents. The dollar value of damage caused in accidents there put the intersection in the top 10th percentile in the entire state, according to Mn/DOT. Also, traffic regularly "stacks up," due to lack of space for cars to line up while waiting for lights. Simply put, there are too many intersections in too little space.
Some have complained that the intersection does little to encourage south-bound travelers to stop in Winona and makes it difficult for traffic to flow to and from the nearby businesses. Others have expressed concerns over the loss of private property and tax dollars that substantial rebuilding projects might incur. A number businesses throughout the project area depend on traffic flow and have expressed concerns about restricting accesses.
In recent years, Mn/DOT studied a spectrum of options for rebuilding the intersection with prices of up to $10 million and with various effects on nearby properties. This year, Mn/DOT selected the cheapest option as its recommendation: the $2 million "minimum build" alternative. Mn/DOT Project Manager Jai Kalsy stated earlier this fall that a lack of funding for more substantial improvements was the main reason his agency selected the minimum build alternative. All of the potential solutions considered involve consolidating traffic flows into fewer intersections, though the selected plan would do comparatively little in that regard.
At an October 7 meeting of Winona Chamber of Commerce members and local and state officials, Kalsy discussed Mn/DOT's plan for a limited fix at the long-troubled intersection. "It's been talked a lot about over the years, but now we're going to get some action," said Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt as she introduced Kalsy.
The plan for the project would not address many of the intersection's woes, but it would block traffic on Orrin Street from crossing Highway 61 or turning left onto the highway and replace stop signals overdue for retirement. Like other plans considered, the minimum build option will provide a new crosswalk at No Name Drive. It would not straighten out the intersection or provide additional space for cars to wait before signals.
The high number of conflict points and places where traffic paths could potentially collide has been highlighted by Mn/DOT experts as a primary reason for the high number of accidents at the intersection. Motorists must check these conflict points for traffic to safely navigate an intersection. The Orrin Street intersection has 73 conflict points and the Gilmore Avenue intersection has 69. Mn/DOT officials indicated that the proposed Orrin Street restrictions would decrease the number of conflict points there by as much as eight to 16 points.
"We're really looking at replacing aging traffic signals," Kalsy said. "That's really what prompted this project." Kalsy described the project as a short-term fix, and suggested that longterm solutions previously studied might be undertaken in 10 to 15 years. "That, I think, will happen someday when there is more funding," Kalsy stated.
With the minimum build option, it seems like access would get worse, not better, said Winona County Recorder Bob Bambenek at the meeting. There has been interest in redeveloping nearby properties, but the confused intersection has chilled development, the real estate recorder explained. With this plan "you are really alienating and making it difficult for Highway 61 businesses," he told Mn/DOT representatives. Compared to other cities on Highway 61, Winona's juncture with the highway is far less welcoming to vehicles traveling up and down the river, Bambenek added.
Winona City Manager Judy Bodway defended the minimum build option. Any substantial rebuild of the intersection would "impact business significantly," likely claiming large portions of nearby business properties, she said. The city has "worked with Mn/DOT to come up with a solution that is less invasive. That's what we have here." The minimum build alternative will not require Mn/DOT to seize any private land.
Winona City Council member Allyn Thurley, who represents the project area, called the minimum build option "a band-aid approach" during an interview last week. "I am glad that Mn/DOT is doing something in that area because it certainly needs safety improvements, but I wish they would have come up with a little more comprehensive plan," he continued. Thurley said he wants to hear more from constituents in the area, but from what he has heard so far, people are "glad that Mn/DOT is going to do something, but perhaps there is another alternative out there that would be a little better." He added, "I don't envy the people at Mn/DOT" and said it is unfortunate that there was not more funding available for the project.
At the October 7 meeting, Bambenek also encouraged Mn/DOT engineers to consider slowing traffic on that section of Highway 61. "We need a speed that moves people through but that allows access to business," he said. Another chamber member suggested adding a stoplight at King Street. Kalsy replied that unless an intersection meets certain criteria, stoplights are not installed. In earlier studies, Mn/DOT did consider a plan to restrict the crossing at Orrin Street and add signals at King Street and Clarks Lane.
Senator Jeremy Miller asked Kalsy if the plan for the project was finalized or if business owners, citizens, and local leaders could still provide input in shaping it. Kalsy replied that the plan was "finalizing, not finalized." While schematics for the project are still being prepared, the minimum build has been selected as Mn/DOT's recommended alternative, meaning the agency only needs municipal consent and federal regulatory approval to begin the project. Construction is planned for 2015. Mn/DOT is expected to seek municipal consent from the City Council early next year.
Mayor Mark Peterson could not be reached for comment for this story.