On Monday, the Winona City Council gave informal support for the newest conceptual design for improving the tangle of intersections at Gilmore Avenue and Highway 61. All of the council members agreed the new plan would be better than the minimum-build design, which Mn/DOT had decided to pursue before backtracking last month under pressure from city leaders and neighboring businesses.
"I'm comfortable with it," said council member Allyn Thurley. "It does have a few warts on it, but given the other alternatives this seems to be a much better way to move forward."
"I wish there was a magic bullet that took care of all of the problems. I would love it. If somebody had one, I would gladly take that bullet," Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) Project Manager Kyle Lake told the council.
Lake acknowledged the project's challenges and its long and controversial history caught him by surprise. After working on the massive ROC 52 project in Rochester, Lake thought the Gilmore Avenue project would be simple and easy. It is just a couple of blocks, right? he thought. "I hadn't read anything about it, didn't know anything about it," he explained to the council. Lake, who began in January, is the third project manager for the project in just over a year. The troubled intersection has been the topic of debate for over a decade, according to city staff. "Now that I've got my feet wet with it, this is a challenging project," Lake continued.
Years ago, Mn/DOT consultants studied a wide range of potential solutions, including a roundabout, before the agency selected the least expensive, minimum-build option last year and announced plans to move forward with it this spring.
"I did laugh," Lake confided, when he first heard the name "because it does imply, 'Let's just do the cheapest thing we can.' While I'm not going to disagree with that philosophy, it's little deeper than that," he said, adding, "it's more of minimum value from Mn/DOT." Mn/DOT selected that minimal option and eschewed making changes to Gilmore Avenue because "they felt like anything that was done [at Gilmore Avenue and Highway 61], from a Mn/DOT standpoint, really wasn't going to improve the operations without spending lots of money and acquiring lots of right of way," Lake told the council. He acknowledge the minimum-build option would not improve safety at Gilmore Avenue.
Is not clear whether Mn/DOT will proceed with the new plan. The agency only budgeted enough for the $2 million minimum-build option. Previous estimates for designs similar to the new one were around $6 million. Lake said he thinks that is too high and was hopeful that much of the roadway will not need to be replaced. However, if Mn/DOT proceeds with the new plan, it will need to secure additional funding. Lake has indicated that the city might need to help share some of the costs for the project and said that pursuing the new plan would likely set construction back to 2016.
City Manager Judy Bodway met with neighboring business to gauge their support, opposition, or concerns. "Most of the business I talked to following the meeting said they liked the concept," she said. However, HyVee had concerns, Bodway and Lake, who has also talked with neighboring businesses, acknowledged. One concern Bodway, Lake, and council members said might affect HyVee is that traffic would be tempted to cut through the HyVee parking lot to access businesses east of the grocery store. "They're going to do it at 30 mph, and they're going to do it," said council member Gerry Krage.
Lake also noted that HyVee felt that the minimum-build option "works better for the proposed convenience store they're talking about" building just west of the grocery store.
Last fall, Bodway had supported the minimum-build alternative, noting that it did not require the seizure of business property. At last week's meeting she pointed out the advantages of the new plan, explaining that, with the exception of HyVee, neighboring businesses that had previously supported the minimum-build plan were now supporting the new plan.
Lake promised to think of a better name for the new design than its current moniker: modified 7B version two. Council members joked it should be called "Kyle."
"Are you going to be the engineer" through construction? council member George Borzyskowksi asked Lake.
"That's a hard question to answer when I'm probably the fourth or fifth person you've talked to in the last two years," Lake responded.
More information on the new design, the minimum-build design, and the project backstory is available at www.winonapost.com. A full map of the conceptual, modified 7B version two design is available at www.dot.state.mn.us/d6/projects/hwy61winona/documents.html.