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Will Mn/DOT pay for visual features on bridge (11/20/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Illustrations provided by Mn/DOT
      A staircase at Second Street is proposed as part of the new Winona bridge project. Another conceptual image showcases a proposed trailhead for regional bicycle routes and proposed landscaping beside the bridge.
If the funding can be found, a staircase may zigzag from the top of the new Winona bridge down to Second Street and a bike trail may wrap around the bridge landing at Fourth Street to parkland below. At recent meetings, the Winona Bridge Project Visual Quality Committee (VQC), a group of local residents hosted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT), supported plans for such a staircase, park-like landscaping within the bridge right-of-way, and a bike trail beneath the bridge. As with other riverfront improvements, how and whether they will be funded remains to be decided. If the city is required to contribute to any of VQC proposals, city staff will play an important rule in proposing which ones, if any, the city should support.

At an October meeting, VQC and Levee Park Committee member Mike Kennedy told Mn/DOT Project Manager Terry Ward, "I don't know that you all understand how much this can impact downtown and the levee area and how important it is for it to be right from a public perspective."

An under-bridge bike path would allow cyclists and pedestrians to access the new bridge's bicycle and pedestrian lane without walking around the Timbers Restaurant block or trying to cross an unregulated right turn lane at the base of the bridge. A staircase at Second Street would allow pedestrians to get from downtown to Latsch Island and Wisconsin without walking as far away from the river. The VQC discussed landscaping to include graceful plantings of trees and native grasses, and stone terraces. A trailhead at the foot of Huff Street would link the state bicycle trails and the Mississippi River Trail. The landscaping would border storm water ponds that will be placed beneath the new bridge as well as the surrounding right-of-way that will remain permanent open space. The VQC has also recommended raising the bicycle and pedestrian path on Latsch Island to avoid flooding.

The idea of an L-shaped park running from the bridge right-of-way to Levee Park, along with a bike path and staircase or spiral ramp, was first publicly suggested by designers for the city-run Winona Levee Park Committee in July. Levee Park Committee members at that meeting were excited at the potential for attracting activity to downtown and the riverfront with the new parkland. The concepts now championed by the Mn/DOT-run VQC were more or less adopted from the levee group. Representatives from the levee committee and the latest downtown revitalization project, Winona Main Street, also sit on the VQC.

Winona Mayor Mark Peterson said the VQC's landscaping, bike path, and staircase concepts are encouraging and tie in directly with plans to revitalize Levee Park and downtown. He added that he was glad Mn/DOT "is considering something other than a wasteland underneath the bridge."

Kennedy described the recent proposals as providing convenience and safety of travel. He noted that the bike path and stairway concepts fit in well with state and federal mandates for support of alternative transportation. Those transportation features combined with landscaping, lighting, artwork, and signage "have the potential to contribute to the riverfront and the historic nature of Winona, connecting downtown, Levee Park, and Latsch Island into one public space with many places for people to be," he stated.

Battle over cost

sharing ahead

From airy railings, attractive pier designs, tasteful retaining walls, and stylish light fixtures to lookouts, a staircase, and blocks of parkspace, the VQC has plenty of ideas to make the Winona Bridge more enjoyable and appealing. Mn/DOT has not begun making any cost estimates for the recommendations, but the total is not likely to be an insignificant number. Whether the VQC's wishes will be realized depends on an upcoming discussion over cost sharing between the city and Mn/DOT.

Prior to the VQC recommendations, Mn/DOT's cost-sharing proposal called for the city to contribute $700,000, including $200,000 to pay for all of the costs associated with bike paths underneath the bridge. Negotiations over a final cost-share agreement are still pending. At recent meetings, Ward suggested he may press the city to contribute more to construct and maintain some of the VQC recommendations. Referring to Mn/DOT, Peterson commented, "We're going to encourage them to pony up, too."

In theory, the state could allocate additional funding for the project; however, Ward has stated that his agency will not commit additional funds to the project for aesthetic improvements. With a total project budget of $142 million and construction estimates of up to $131 million, the project has at least $11 million in currently uncommitted funding. Ward indicated in previous public meetings that much of that $11 million will be needed for engineering and other project administration costs. The remainder could be used to fund the VQC's recommendations, though it may fall short. Any costs for improvements above and beyond that would need to be paid by the city or else forgone, Ward said.

The answer "could be as simple as some of the things the VQC is recommending; [city leaders] may not want to include them," Ward stated in an interview. He explained that he plans to meet with city staff in the coming months to discuss cost sharing arrangements. If Mn/DOT will not fund all of the VQC recommendations, current plans call for city staff to decide what VQC recommendations, if any, the city would be willing to fund and propose a final cost-sharing agreement to the City Council.

In a preview of upcoming negotiations, City Manager Judy Bodway told Ward last month, "Most certainly the city is going to look at its cost participation to be as minimal as possible. That's where we start the discussions; we'll see what happens."

At the same meeting Kennedy pressed Ward not to skimp on Winona's aesthetic wishes for the concrete box girder bridge, saying that since the city approved Mn/DOT's selection of the least expensive bridge type, "the city's contribution for underneath the bridge should be nowhere near what it would be [had the city insisted on a more expensive bridge type]."

Historic review: staircase okay

Until recently, it was unclear whether the VQC's staircase concept would pass historic review by Mn/DOT historians. When Levee Park designers originally championed the concept they said it would likely not be approved by historian-regulators. Last month, Mn/DOT officials indicated potential historic impacts were a concern and said they could not say whether the concept was realistic.

Earlier this month, however, Ward reported that Mn/DOT's lead historian had reviewed and given preliminary approval to the staircase concept.

"We did not have any concerns that it would create any adverse visual affects," Mn/DOT historian Kristen Zschomler confirmed.

Mn/DOT historians, who are responsible for regulating their own agency and interpreting federal historic preservation rules, have had important and detailed influence over other design elements. Mn/DOT historians gave the VQC specific directives on how prominent lighting on the new bridge could be, and, according to Mn/DOT's official rationale, federal historic preservation laws, together with desires to minimize risks to migratory birds, led Mn/DOT to choose a box girder bridge design over arch and cable bridge designs. In a pivotal decision, Mn/DOT historians ruled that because the box girder had a lower profile, there was less visual mass to disrupt views of the old bridge and thus it was historically preferable to other designs.

When asked about how the staircase concept fit in with that low-profile philosophy, Zschomler explained that it complied because the staircase is much smaller than an arch bridge and because visual obstructions beneath the bridge deck are less historically important.

VQC not going away

The VQC originally planned to meet into late fall, but the group and Mn/DOT officials agreed to continue meeting through the final design of the project so that the group can provide additional input as final decisions are made. Typically the input of groups like the VQC is summarized in a Visual Quality Manual and provided to final design teams. "It was mutually requested that the committee stay on with the project to insure the priorities and specifics of our work be supported," explained Kennedy. 


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