State claims it doesn't need city approval
Winona City Council member Allyn Thurley called it a "band-aid;" Mayor Mark Peterson called it a "minimal fix" not the "real fix." However, with or without the city's blessing, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) is moving forward with the "minimum build" design for a project at the troubled intersection of Gilmore Avenue and Highway 61.
Thurley and Peterson want the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) to make more substantial improvements to traffic flow and safety at the jumble of intersections at Gilmore Avenue, Orrin Street, and Highway 61 than planned under the aptly named minimum build design. The design was the cheapest and would make the least significant changes to the intersection compared to six other designs considered by Mn/DOT over the last four years.
Typically, Mn/DOT projects that involved local roads require municipal consent, that is, approval from the City Council. Former project manager Jai Kalsy said Mn/DOT intended to seek consent by the end of 2013, then by early 2014. Now, current project manager Kyle Lake acknowledged in an interview that there has been a significant change of plans: Mn/DOT will not seek municipal consent. "Actually the project, technically, does not require municipal consent because it's a safety project," Lake explained.
Winona leaders and state officials agree that there is a safety issue at the intersections, but Thurley and Peterson do not appear to agree that Mn/DOT's minimum build design will adequately improve those safety issues and other problems at the intersection.
A troubled tangle
Former project manager Jai Kalsy told Winonans last November that the primary purpose of the minimum build project was to replace aging traffic lights at the intersection of Gilmore Avenue, Orrin Street, and Highway 61. Mn/DOT officials called those signals "overdue for replacement" in 2010. "That's really what prompted this project," Kalsy said.
Old signal lights are far from the area's only problem, though. The tangle of skewed intersections at Winona's west end — Gilmore Avenue, Highway 61, Orrin Street, two frontage roads, and the so-called No Name Drive — is a hot spot for accidents, with more accident damage by dollar value than 90 percent of intersections in the state, and "numerous accidents or near misses," according to a 2010 Mn/DOT study. For Winonans, the issue was punctuated with an accident that injured three teens earlier this month. One was airlifted to La Crosse.
Thurley was almost "T-boned" himself years ago, when, while crossing Highway 61, the angle of the intersection and his car's side pillar blocked him from seeing a car barreling down the highway. A shout from his mother in the passenger seat avoided disaster. "The danger of that intersection is something I will always remember," he said.
The frequency of accidents is due in large part to the high number of "conflict points," directions from which opposing traffic might come and which drivers navigating the intersection must check. A typical four-way intersection has 32 conflict points; normal four-lane highway crossings have 42. Orrin Street and Highway 61 has 73 conflict points. Gilmore Avenue and Highway 61 has 69.
Additionally, some of the intersections are also nearing their capacity for traffic, and some intersections hardly have space for more than one car to wait at traffic signals. Mn/DOT officials told Winonans in 2012 that the minimum build option will not do much to improve traffic congestion; it will be at capacity as soon as work begins in 2015, according to former project manager Jeff Bunch, who oversaw the project until being replaced by Kalsy in 2013. Kalsy was subsequently replaced by Lake.
In 2011 Mn/DOT developed seven alternatives ranging from $10 million plans to seize significant sections of private property and totally rebuild the intersection to the $2 million "minimum build" option currently being pursued. Many of the intersections' problems are the result of having too many intersections in too little space, and many of the considered solutions would have either closed some of the intersections, rebuilt intersections with increased space from seized property, or both. However, eminent domain and reduced access was not popular among businesses and property owners and Mn/DOT stated last fall that it did not have enough money for anything other than the minimum build design.
In an interview, Thurley advocated for another design that was seriously considered by Mn/DOT, the modified 7B design, which would require the seizure of little to no private land while "straightening out" the skewed angle of the Gilmore Avenue intersection and consolidating traffic.
Lake said that the modified 7B design is "a much more costly fix" and that "the safety benefit that you would garner from that is really no greater than what we're getting with what we're going forward with [the minimum build design]."
Both the minimum build and the modified 7B would restrict crossing Highway 61 on Orrin Street, reducing the conflict points at that intersection and the potential for accidents. However, the modified 7B would also reduce the potential for accidents at Gilmore Avenue by restricting most traffic at the current Gilmore Avenue and Highway 61 intersection, routing it to a new intersection that would be constructed between the current intersection and No Name Drive.
When asked, Lake acknowledged that the modified 7B would reduce the 69 conflict points at Gilmore Avenue, but, he said, "our real safety issues are at Orrin Street."
"By putting more money into it and getting a better design, in the future we'll have even fewer accidents," Thurley said, voicing support for the modified 7B design. He acknowledged that none of the options were perfect, but that the modified 7B did more to address safety problems while minimizing the impact to nearby properties. He added, "The minimum build is a band-aid approach. It doesn't take a long-term approach to solve the traffic problems in that area."
In an interview, Peterson agreed, noting that the minimum build design does not address several safety issues including the problem of the intersections' sharp angles.
"I'm glad they are doing something, but I think it's a mess out there ... I wish they were doing more than they're planning on because it certainly doesn't solve all the problems," Peterson said. Peterson said he still hoped Mn/DOT would "do more than minimum," but acknowledged that if Mn/DOT is correct in its determination that the project does not need municipal consent, "it doesn't sound like the city has a lot of input."