By Chris Rogers, editor
Now that Winona is home to four roundabouts in a row, including what is likely the state’s busiest, I think the time for putting aside “Island City” and embracing “Roundabout Capital of Minnesota” has come.
I respect Winonans’ differing opinions on the new loopy de loops, but for my money, as a driver, they’re a great improvement and probably the best possible solution (short of a Louisa Street extension and a railroad overpass) to the East End’s traffic issues. It took a little getting used to, but I get through the area way faster than I did when there were stoplights. When traffic is light, the difference is especially remarkable — no stopping! — but even when it’s busy, traffic flows notably more smoothly.
The new design has made a big difference in a few specific spots. Before, trying to turn left off of eastbound Sarnia Street onto Mankato Avenue was like waiting in purgatory for your name to be called on the day of judgment. Now that is far easier, as is turning left from Mankato Avenue. Conversely, trying to sneak across Mankato Avenue at Bruski Drive and Parks Avenue — so close to the Highway 61 lights — always seemed like a bad idea, and I think the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) decision to do away with the crossing was an easy safety improvement.
It’s true that where traffic lights are unambiguous — go when it’s green, stop when it’s red —yielding at roundabouts requires more attention and thus leaves a bit more room for user error. But I think that, once you get used to it, it’s on par with other driving situations we deal with all the time like merging on a busy highway or navigating Winona’s many uncontrolled neighborhood intersections.
I had my first experience with the new roundabouts as a pedestrian this week, and on that front, I’d give them a more mixed review. There’s just no getting around it: Trusting drivers to stop for you feels a bit like playing Frogger with your life sometimes. The roundabouts don’t have the sense of security that comes from seeing the “walk” sign and knowing that it’s definitively your turn. That said, the “walk” sign gives a partly false sense of security. While you can be relatively sure cross traffic wouldn’t run the red light and mow you down, cars turning left or right could still hit you in the crosswalk. In fact, a Winona Post review of five years of accident reports found that a vehicle turning was one of the most common scenarios for pedestrian crashes. Plus, for people who aren’t so spry, stoplights don’t always last long enough to walk across.
The benefit of the roundabouts is that, with the crosswalks broken up by median islands, you only have to worry about traffic coming from one direction at a time and the distance to cross is relatively short. While walking through the new roundabouts, I found that there are still plenty of nice people out there who will stop for pedestrians, and enough lulls to get through regardless.
Overall, although there are some tradeoffs for pedestrians, I’d have to say this project is an improvement if for no other reason than that it added many crosswalks and sidewalks where there were none before.
Some locals have been so inexplicably appalled by the roundabouts that MnDOT and more roundabout-savvy people simply rolled their eyes — as if anyone who couldn’t figure it out was hopeless. Even that high-brow institution, Kwik Trip, seemed to poke fun at roundabout-phobic Winonans in a social media post: “Little Miss Doesn’t Know How Roundabouts Work." But I say the concerns, skepticism, and wariness were understandable. Roundabouts are confusing at first. I’d driven several roundabouts before, and (thanks to my job) closely studied the designs for these four, but I was nervous and a little unsure of where to go my first time driving the 61/43 roundabout. You really need to pay attention to the signage the first few times.
That brings me to my biggest criticism. It took MnDOT several days after the opening of the final roundabouts this November to install all of the signs indicating what lane to use. Here’s an idea: MnDOT should install signs before opening new roadways no one is familiar with. This is the same snafu that made the beginning of construction such a debacle. There were no signs telling people where to go.
The right and left lanes of these roundabouts all do different things. On southbound Mankato Avenue at Frontenac Drive, the right lane is right-turn only. At Sarnia Street, it’s straight only, and coming northbound, either lane goes straight. So signage is key. With all the feats of engineering that made this project possible, getting signs installed on time doesn’t seem like too much to ask.
On the bright side, as I wrote this on Tuesday, crews were installing additional overhead signage, and I trust pavement markings will be added as soon as it warms up in the spring. That will be a great help.
There’s one thing we can all agree on: Thank goodness construction is over.