by CHRIS ROGERS
The Broadway road diet — a plan to re-stripe Broadway, converting it from four lanes to three — was a hot topic in last fall’s Winona City Council election, and now the new City Council could very well stop the project in its tracks.
First proposed in 2015 following a series of pedestrian accidents on Broadway, the road diet would repave Broadway from Sioux Street to Mankato Avenue and re-stripe the road so that it only has two travel lanes, while adding one center left-turn lane. The project would also update crosswalk curb ramps along the route to meet American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, install curb bumpouts at a handful of intersections, and add bicycle lanes. Four-to-three-lane conversions are a Federal Highway Administration “proven safety countermeasure” shown to reduce both vehicular and pedestrian accidents by reducing the number of potential conflicts for vehicles, reducing the chances of rear-end accidents, and boosting pedestrian safety by eliminating blindspots and reducing crosswalk distance.
The city won $1.9 million in state and federal grants for the project, and plans to use another $1.4 million in state road funding — money the city gets every year for use on a variety of major city streets — to fund the estimated $3.3-million project.
The previous City Council voted multiple times over several years to approve the project, and it is currently slated for construction this summer. However, each time it was a close vote: 4-3. With construction on the horizon, the road diet became a significant campaign issue this fall, and road-diet critic Aaron Repinski defeated incumbent road-diet proponent Paul Schollmeier in a citywide council race, potentially swinging the balance of power on the City Council against the project.
Although previous council votes approved it, the new City Council must vote at least two more times to make the road diet a reality: first, to seek bids, and, second, to accept the lowest bid from a contractor. Either moment would give the new council majority a chance to nix the project or they could act anytime to direct city staff to scrap it.
“I’ll be honest, I’m against the road diet,” Repinski said in an interview last month. Repinski spoke against the project during his campaign, as well, and he said that while speaking with voters, “Ninety-five percent of the people I spoke to about the road diet are against it.” Asked whether he would vote for the road diet this spring, he responded, “At this time, with the information I’ve obtained and all the individuals I’ve spoken to about it, I would vote against it.” He added that he would like to see more public input on the project, as well.
“I’m all for pedestrian safety, and if it’s really a speed issue — if that’s the concern — maybe we put a little bit more law enforcement in,” Repinski continued. He said adding more flashing lights at crosswalks could help pedestrian safety. City engineers have said that if the city installs too many flashing lights, they will cease to stand out to drivers.
“One advantage is getting the road paved,” Repinski acknowledged, nodding to the federal and state grants. “That’s definitely an advantage.”
While engineers have said that three-lane roads could more than handle the 8,800 vehicles a day that travel Broadway, Repinski argued that traffic would inevitably be slowed down. “I feel every time someone wants to turn right or turn into their driveway, they’re going to slow that lane of traffic down. Nobody corners at 30 miles per hour … If you drive down Broadway and someone turns right in front of you, that’s a time you’re going to slow down.”
Also this month, newly elected City Council member Steve Young replaced retiring council member Al Thurley, and Scott Sherman won election to replace Mark Peterson as Winona’s mayor. Those elections don’t change the council dynamic on this issue: Young and Thurley have both opposed the road diet. Sherman and Peterson have both supported it.
Young said he opposed the road diet during his campaign last fall. In an interview last month, Young was more equivocal. “I need to learn more. I need to hear more. I can tell you clearly, I question the need for this project,” he said. Asked whether he would vote for it this spring, Young responded, “I want to come to these things with an open mind, but right now I don’t think this is the correct solution for Winona.”
“I just don’t see how it’s going to accomplish the intended goals,” Young said of the road diet, noting that there are some safety hazards — like the morning sun shining in the eyes of eastbound drivers — that no construction project would fix. “Of course, everybody is for safety and for apple pie, too. If we really wanted to maximize safety, we could ban pedestrians from ever walking across Broadway. Well, that’s not realistic. I just don’t see how we’re going to accomplish what we want to by narrowing down the streets,” he stated. Asked whether he shared some citizens’ concerns about the road diet slowing down vehicular traffic, Young responded, “I’m sure there would be some slowing of traffic. You can only go the speed of the slowest person, and there are those that drive 25 miles per hour there.”
“I’m in favor of it for two reasons: safety and cost to the taxpayer,” Sherman said of the road diet. “Any which way you cut it, it’s projected to be safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, and it’s already been approved, and we’ve already taken some of the money for the project.” He added, “If you don’t take that grant money, we, the taxpayers, are going to be on the hook for mill and overlay of that street. Even if it’s just potholes or whatever minimal maintenance we do to it, we will need a mill and overlay on Broadway … We’re pulling out of our own city budget if we don’t take those grant dollars and adopt some of the aspects of that plan.”
Sherman said he believes local, state, and national engineers’ advice that a road diet will improve safety. “They know what they’re doing, so we should trust them,” he stated. He added, “It’s cheaper and safer … And it’s not going to hurt anybody to not do the road diet. It is going to hurt us financially if we don’t do it, and it could potentially save a life if we do it. And my value for a life is much more than a road, plain and simple.”
The City Council is scheduled to discuss the road diet on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 5:45 p.m. The meeting will be held over videoconference. To observe the Zoom meeting via web, visit zoom.us/j/896465916 and enter the meeting ID, 896 465 916, and the password, 207207. To listen via telephone, dial 1-312-626-6799, and when prompted, enter the following meeting ID: 896 465 916.