Chris Rogers Headshot

by  Chris Rogers, editor, Winona Post

 

In the hustle and bustle of our modern lives — rushing from one commitment to the next, phones pinging with notifications all the while — we seldom get much chance to really slow down and reflect. Thankfully, driving through the road construction on Mankato Avenue the past couple of weeks blessed me with plenty of time to think about my life and what it all means. I wondered as I zoned out in a sea of brake lights: How do we know the things we experience aren’t just a simulation in the Matrix or shadows in Plato’s cave? If the universe is constantly expanding, what is it expanding into? What will be left of me after I’m gone? Nothing cures road rage like existential dread.

If you’ve got somewhere to be, the delays on Mankato Avenue are no joke, and the rerouted lanes are a little disorienting. Driving through the temporary intersection at highways 61 and 43 feels a bit like when you put a shoe on the wrong foot. You’re trying to make things fit despite the strange feeling that something is backward. 

But while some Winonans are skeptical of the decision to make our city the roundabout capital of Minnesota, it’s good to remember that Mankato Avenue needed to be repaired regardless — in some spots very badly. Even if MnDOT stuck with the stoplights, we would have been dealing with this same headache during construction.

The bigger issue is that Mankato Avenue is virtually the only way in and out of the whole eastern half of the core city. While there were recent problems with the temporary stoplights that exacerbated the traffic snarls, the primary reason for all this congestion is that what’s under construction is the main highway access for everything east of Huff Street. That’s just too many cars. That amount of traffic clogged Mankato Avenue before construction, so of course there are huge delays now that it’s down to two lanes. Just imagine if the road was completely closed.

MnDOT traffic engineers foresaw this being a problem way back in 2002, when a study warned the city of excessive congestion on Mankato Avenue if the Riverbend “Industrial” Park became a shopping center and recommended extending Louisa Street out to Highway 61, creating another relief valve for East End drivers to reach the highway.

The plans for Mankato Avenue’s new roundabouts remind me of the redesign of Gilmore Avenue and Highway 61 intersection on the other end of town. That design was lambasted by some. It’s highly unusual and clearly not ideal (exhibit A: the J-shaped queue in front of Hy-Vee), but I’d argue it did make things better and was probably the best MnDOT could do under the limitations. At both Gilmore and Mankato, more land would have been needed to address the core issues — a costly proposition for both MnDOT’s budget and Winona’s limited supply of land. So the state was left to come up with creative solutions to handle a ton of traffic in a narrow space.

I don’t think the city of Winona can responsibly add any more multi-million-dollar projects to its wish list for the near future, but the city should make a Louisa Street extension — or some second highway access on the East End — a long-term goal. 

I know many Winonans really want an East End overpass to deal with the railroad switching issue — when trains come to a complete stop, blocking the road for over a half-hour at a time — but I’d argue a second East End highway access is more important. An overpass would avoid the infrequent but terrible blockages from switching trains; however, it wouldn’t do anything to reduce routine congestion on Mankato Avenue. If Louisa Street were extended to the highway, it would provide a better option to go around those stopped trains. Plus it’s likely to be much cheaper than an overpass.

A Louisa Street extension should have been built two decades ago. It would take the pressure off Mankato Avenue, making it easier to navigate for everyone, and the next time Mankato Avenue needs to be resurfaced or is blocked by an accident, it wouldn’t be crippling to Winona traffic.