by CHRIS ROGERS
State traffic engineers saw it coming. Commercial development in the East End’s Riverbend Industrial Park would create a huge amount of traffic and congestion on Mankato Avenue, they warned the city of Winona in 2002.
It’s a problem the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) and the city are now grappling with as they plan for a once-in-50-years redesign of Mankato Avenue. To maximize traffic flow and safety while dealing with heavy traffic and limited space, the state has settled on a plan to convert the street’s stoplights into roundabouts. It includes a roundabout at Highway 61 and Highway 43 that would be the one of the busiest roundabouts — if not the busiest — in Minnesota.
Back in 2002, there were other ideas for how to ease congestion on Mankato Avenue: most notably, a Louisa Street extension.
Louisa St.: A second East End outlet?
Seven blocks to the east, Louisa Street parallels Mankato Avenue, crosses the railroad tracks, curls around the far east side of Menards. It ends just shy of Fleet Farm and Highway 61. In the 2000s, the city planned to extend Louisa Street out to Highway 61.
Currently, to get in and out of town, nearly all traffic east of Franklin Street is funneled through one narrow corridor: Mankato Avenue. A Louisa Street extension would create a second entrance/exit to the eastern half of Winona, and relieve some of the pressure on Mankato Avenue.
During a discussion of Mn/DOT’s plans for Mankato Avenue, City Council member Al Thurley told the Post, “In the grand scheme of things, it’s too bad we can’t move forward with an alternative where we can move into the industrial area with truck traffic, like a Louisa Street extension, which would reduce truck traffic significantly.”
For years, city leaders tried hard to fund a Louisa Street extension. They sought federal grant money and state bonding dollars. In a bid to pay for it by raising local sales taxes, they put the project up to a referendum. Voters rejected it — twice. The last serious attempt was in 2013, back when city leaders were still seriously pursuing an East End overpass, possibly on Louisa Street. Funding for half of the roughly $10-million extension made it into the governor’s bonding bill proposal that year, but it never passed the House or Senate.
“We applied for funding several times and did not receive any funding, and I’m not going to say it died on the vine, but it really hasn’t been pushed forward since that point,” Winona Director of Public Works Brian DeFrang said.
There were other challenges to the proposed extension, not just the money, Thurley and DeFrang noted. Putting a highway entrance there could create blindspots and might require a complete reconstruction of the Burns Valley Creek bridge, DeFrang said. Squeezing a major road in between Fleet Farm and Burns Valley Creek would likely require either acquiring private property or encroaching on the dike or both. “The [U.S. Army] Corps was not really excited about us building next to the dike,” DeFrang said. In a city with limited land, Winona leaders have often been loathe to use up private property for road right-of-way.
Extending Louisa Street to Highway 61 likely would relieve pressure on Mankato Avenue, but it won’t do that much to reduce traffic at Highway 61 and Mankato Avenue, Mn/DOT Project Manager Chad Hanson said. To really reduce traffic at that intersection would require extending Louisa Street all the way past Highway 61, behind the hotels on Sugar Loaf View Road, all the way to Highway 43 on the south side of Sugar Loaf, DeFrang said. That is what Mn/DOT officials wanted the city to do back in the 2000s, he reported. Winona officials tried, but in addition to added costs, the amount of space available for a road gets even tighter in this stretch, where it would be squeezed in between the Plaza Hotel & Suites and the creek.
“My one question is, where would they bring the traffic back into town?” City Council member Paul Schollmeier said, raising another issue. Would a Louisa Street extension turn East Eighth Street from a relatively quiet neighborhood to a major thoroughfare?
“There were reasons why that was abandoned,” City Council member Michelle Alexander said of the extension proposal.
Another idea: Move Hwy. 43 to Riverview Dr.
A concept that’s gained some traction among citizens and some local leaders — at in least in theory — is rerouting Highway 43 to Pelzer Street and Riverview Drive. That way, highway traffic could reach the interstate bridge without weaving through Winona neighborhoods as it currently does, advocates point out.
This idea has some variants. Some proponents suggest redirecting the entire highway route to Riverview Drive. Others recommend redirecting just heavy truck traffic that way.
“To me it’s a no-brainer: Reroute truck traffic,” Joe Reed said. Reed served for years on the Winona State University pedestrian safety committee working with the city on safety improvements before retiring as a professor last year. It would take a little more time, but it would be four lanes most of the way and on streets with wide turning radii for trucks, he pointed out. Most of all, moving all of those heavy trucks out of the center of town would improve pedestrian safety downtown, around campus, and by the lake, Reed argued.
City Council member Paul Schollmeier, too, suggested this idea in an interview.
“That’s very out of your way,” DeFrang said of the concept. According to Google Maps, it’s a 2.5-mile, seven-minute drive from Highway 61 and Highway 43 to the base of the bridge, following Highway 43’s current route. To take Highway 61 to Pelzer Street and then Riverview Drive would take 14 minutes and seven miles. After actually driving the routes, Reed reported only a three-to-four minute difference.
Another challenge: Although trucks are theoretically supposed to stick to designated trucks routes, those kinds of rules are very hard for the city to enforce, as the city’s inability to stop trucks from driving through narrow neighborhood streets on their way to a West Third Street warehouse has proven. Trying to get trucks to go the long way around and not cut through the city would be a major challenge, DeFrang said. “I definitely get the concept or the idea … It would very difficult to enforce,” he stated.
Ultimately, Highway 43 is a state highway. Advocates of rerouting would have to convince Mn/DOT, not just local officials.