The city of Winona may give its formal blessing on Tuesday for the Minnesota Department of Transportation's (Mn/DOT) historic evaluation of the new Winona bridge design. An agreement slated for City Council consideration would "concur" with the determination of Mn/DOT historians that the new bridge will have no negative historic impact. City staff have described the purpose of the agreement as keeping the city informed as final design details for the project are set; however, Mn/DOT officials acknowledged the agreement does not legally require them to do so.
The city is not required to sign the Programmatic Agreement, and its signature will not affect execution of the project. If the council agrees to sign, however, it will be its first formal approval of Mn/DOT's historic evaluation.
The historic impact of the new bridge design became a subject of debate this summer, when some city officials balked at plans for a concrete box girder bridge that would obstruct upriver views from the current bridge. Winona Post reports revealed that the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) raised the same issue in letters with Mn/DOT historians, arguing that the blocked views might be a significant, negative historic impact. In a subsequent public meeting, Mn/DOT historian Kristen Zschomler denied the contention between her agency and SHPO.
Later, Mn/DOT historians ruled that the new bridge would cause no adverse historic effect and listed historic preservation as one of the primary reasons for selecting the box girder bridge over the arch bridge SHPO experts advocated for. Locally, a desire to complete the project quickly and some Winonans' appreciation of the open views from the proposed bridge style helped garner support for the Mn/DOT plan.
Nevertheless, when the City Council approved the plans for the project last fall, it made an express attempt to exclude the concrete box girder design from its blessing. "Can we give consent for you to go ahead, but we'll leave the bridge structure out of it until you get further?" council member George Borzyskowski asked Ward. Ward told the council it could do whatever it wanted, but later explained that, functionally, there was no leaving the box girder design out, the council gave full consent, and Mn/DOT did not need further approval from the city for the design.
HPC 'concurs' with Mn/DOT
Despite conflicting opinions on the bridge design and concerns over Mn/DOT's handling of the project, the city's Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) signed the Programmatic Agreement last week. City Planner Mark Moeller described the agreement with the HPC as "[identifying] who does what if the scope of the design changes." He continued, "the primary purpose of including the HPC as a potential signer of this thing is to bring the commission into the process." Moeller did not mention that the agreement acknowledges the Mn/DOT finding of no adverse historic effect. "I see it as fairly innocent," he added.
The HPC's "signature is symbolic in that [it] concur[s] with the contents of the Programmatic Agreement," including Mn/DOT's finding of no adverse historic effect, Ward said when asked about the HPC's signing.
"I felt you need a law degree to read it," HPC Chair Lynn Englund said of the Programmatic Agreement. The group signed in hopes of being informed by Mn/DOT about final design decisions. Englund explained that the commission as a whole may not agree with the Mn/DOT historic evaluation — members are split, with some in favor of the new bridge design, some opposed to it, and some concerned about the short design lifetime for rehabilitation of the current bridge — but it is "a done deal" and the HPC is better off by signing the agreement and being "in the loop" as design details are finalized.
Moeller acknowledged that Mn/DOT officials are not required to keep the HPC informed of design changes as part of the agreement, but "I hope that Mn/DOT will go beyond that and keep us in loop."
The HPC criticized Mn/DOT for not seeking its input on the local historic effects of the bridge design this fall. "We were not involved in the decision-making and we did not think that was right," Englund said last October. Mn/DOT officials had consulted with historical groups in other cities, such as Hastings, where a new bridge was recently built.
In November, the HPC planned to have a conference call with Mn/DOT officials to encourage the agency not to repeat that mistake during future projects in other cities. City staff promised on multiple occasions to provide public notice of that meeting and conference call, but did not. Moeller apologized and said that he simply forgot. During the November meeting, several HPC members argued that the group should ask Mn/DOT to create a written policy that requires consultation with local historical groups for similar projects.
Englund said that, during the December conference call, Mn/DOT officials Zschomler and Ward "apologized for not communicating with us," but a written policy was not discussed.
In time, "the administration will change and new people will come in," said HPC member Wes Hamilton, arguing for a written Mn/DOT policy at the November HPC meeting. Pledges to include local historical groups "will get swept aside unless it gets written down," he added.