by CHRIS ROGERS
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) will hold one more public input meeting next week before seeking the Winona City Council’s blessing for its proposed roundabouts on Mankato Avenue. Mn/DOT engineers say the agency’s plan for four roundabouts — including a roundabout at Highway 61 that would be one of the busiest in the state — will reduce congestion and improve safety. The current City Council supports the project, though some Winonans and one candidate for City Council have opposed it.
Mn/DOT will hold a virtual open house on the project next Wednesday, October 21, at 5:30 p.m. There will be no opportunity for live discussion, Mn/DOT Project Manager Chad Hanson said, but citizens may submit questions in advance or via chat during the meeting. Visit www.mankatoavereconstruction.com/share-your-ideas to register and submit questions.
For Mn/DOT, the main purpose of the meeting appears to be to educate the public about the proposed design and seek feedback that could lead to minor tweaks. Hanson said the basic layout — four roundabouts — is set.
“I would say the overall layout probably won’t change much, it’s more when we get into final design, there might be little tweaks here and there,” Hanson said when asked if the layout could change. He added of next week’s open house, “The City Council and other people said they would like us to get out there and do more on educating people on the project and gathering input and answering questions. That’s really the purpose of the meeting.”
State Senator Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) was among those calling on Mn/DOT to hold more public input meetings.
What if Winonans say they don’t want the roundabouts? “We’re remaining optimistic on this that it won’t come to that,” Hanson responded. “Unfortunately, no project is perfect. If we had traffic signals out here or we had roundabouts, there’s no real silver bullet here … We just want to work with the public so we can reach an understanding of the safest and best-operating alternative we can have here.”
Some Winonans have praised the proposed roundabouts and shared their first-hand experiences of how well traffic circles can work. National and state traffic studies report that roundabouts are proven to significantly reduce serious accidents. Highway 61 and Highway 43 has been a hotspot for crashes.
However, other Winonans have criticized the roundabouts because they see the traffic circles as too drastic a change, as a possible danger or cause of confusion, and because they don’t believe Mn/DOT projections of decreased congestion. “I have yet to meet a single person who thinks it’s a good idea,” at-large City Council candidate Aaron Repinski said of Mn/DOT’s plan.
Repinski’s opponent, incumbent Paul Schollmeier, generally supports the project, though he, too, raised concerns about pedestrian safety. While vehicles will slow to 20 mph when entering the roundabout, pedestrians will have to step out into traffic — without a stop sign or stop light — to cross at the roundabout. “How do pedestrians get across and who is convincing the automobiles to stop for them?” Schollmeier asked. Mn/DOT has since added button-activated flashing lights at the pedestrian crossings.
The Mankato Avenue project is slated for construction in 2022, and to begin the final phases of work, Mn/DOT needs municipal consent — essentially, the city’s blessing. Mn/DOT and city officials have delayed a vote on municipal consent a few times this year; it was originally expected this summer. Now, Hanson and Winona Public Works Director Brian DeFrang said that they’ll ask the council to vote in November or December. That would likely fall after the election, but before the new year, when newly elected council members will take office. Hanson said that waiting until January would delay the land acquisition process to the point where it could throw off the entire project schedule. “The way the schedule is playing out, we really need to do it this year or it would really risk whether we can even do the project in 2022,” he stated.
However the election turns out, it is unlikely to change the City Council majority’s support for this project. Repinski is the only remaining candidate who has opposed the project in major campaign events and press interviews. Roundabout critic Ted Hazelton lost in a landslide in the mayoral primary. Unlike the Broadway road diet, the traffic circles haven’t been a controversial topic in the campaign.
At a recent meeting, City Council member George Borzyskowski pointed out — and DeFrang and Hanson confirmed — that Mn/DOT doesn’t actually need municipal consent for the Highway 61 and Highway 43 roundabout, which has been the subject of the most skepticism. That is because municipal consent is required when city right-of-way is used. At Highway 61, Mn/DOT owns all of the right-of-way needed for the project and no city-owned right-of-way is involved.
However, Hanson said that municipal consent is needed for the other three roundabouts and that the four traffic circles work together. “If you remove one or remove another, it does really affect the traffic flow down the line. It really is a package. You don’t get the benefit at one intersection if the next one is a signal,” he stated.