by ZACH KAYSER
An emotional debate fraught with tension on Wednesday culminated in a tie vote by the Winona City Council on whether to continue the Broadway road diet.
Despite impassioned pleas to consider the safety of Winona road users, which collided with arguments that the downtown businesses would suffer if the $3.3 million road diet went forward, the council voted 3-3 on a motion to continue the project, scheduled for construction this summer. Mayor Scott Sherman, together with City Council members Eileen Moeller and Pamela Eyden, voted in favor of the motion, while council members Steve Young, Aaron Repinski and George Borzyskowski voted against. Council member Michelle Alexander was absent from the meeting and likely would have cast the deciding vote.
The tied result meant the motion itself failed, but city staff said that since the last conclusive vote taken by the council had been 4-3 in favor of the project, they would continue to work on the road diet initiative. It will cost an additional roughly $95,000 to $100,000 to get the project to the bid stage, city manager Steve Sarvi said. At the outset of the meeting, Sarvi had said he hoped to get a clear answer from the council on where to go with the project so that, if the City Council does not support the project, the city could avoid spending any additional money.
If the City Council doesn’t order city staff to stop, the project will eventually involve both resurfacing nearly two miles of Broadway Street as well as restriping the road so that there are two travel lanes for automobiles instead of four. The extra road space would be rededicated to bicycle lanes and a turn lane for vehicles. It would fundamentally change the way traffic moves through central Winona’s most prominent street.
Another opportunity to take a decisive vote on the project will come when the City Council decides whether to solicit bids from contractors. If Tuesday’s council meeting was any indication of the future, that decision will be highly dramatic.
The night began with a work session before the regular meeting, which consisted of a description of the project by designer Tyler McLeete of the Stantec firm, hired by the city as a consultant. The road diet concept is not a novel idea but a tried and true method backed up by research and past implementation in other cities, he said.
“This is a proven safety countermeasure, and it’s been implemented all around the country … these road diets, when you have an overcapacity it solves crash rates by 19- to 47 percent,” he said. “This is a fact.”
McLeete said the road diet project design was about 90 percent complete. He said the plan would reduce the number of conflict points where cars have to stop and wait for each other — or collide with each other. Broadway has an average daily traffic of about 10,000 users, the ideal candidate for a road diet, he said. With a thinner roadway drivers would naturally be inclined to drive more slowly, which would in turn reduce the risk of a fatality if a pedestrian is hit by a car.
When it came time for the debate between council members over whether to go forward with the project, they either echoed McLeete’s assertion that the project will improve safety, or they said it was unnecessary. Supporters and detractors both claimed to have received dozens of messages from constituents either for or against the project.
Sherman said 55 emails had been sent to him on the project, 54 of which were in favor. As both a citizen and a father, he was concerned by other council members’ attempts to stymy the project, he said. “Inconvenience will never outweigh a human life,” he said.
He pointed out that the project was largely funded with grant money, which the city would forfeit if it voted down the idea.“By rejecting this project, you are, indirectly, voting for a tax increase,” he said.
Moeller said she was appalled by the view of opposing council members, who she did not name, that “only” a certain number of fatalities and accidents had occurred on Broadway. “Quite frankly, I find that langage absolutely disgusting,” she said.
Moeller added that accident data does not account for the many near misses when pedestrians are almost struck by a car — which anecdotally people have told her has occurred many times.
Young said the fatalities weighed heavily on his mind when contemplating the decision. However, he said that recent accidents would not have been prevented by the road diet.
He pointed out that $1.4 million in Municipal State Aid Street System (MSAS) funding from the state government allocated for the project could still be used for other things. The resurfacing of the street could occur even if the road diet did not, he said. He countered the argument that the city would lose grant money by saying the city should not be swayed by the federal government grants in the first place. “Local decisions should not be influenced by federal money with strings attached,” he said.
Furthermore, a road diet might divert traffic away from burgeoning economic development in the downtown area, Young said. “We don’t want to drive development to the edge of town, we want to drive development downtown, “That’s why my opinion is that Broadway needs to remain the broad way.”
Moeller said on Friday that her original motion to approve the project without curb extensions or “bump outs” was an attempt to compromise with road diet opponents. She had heard that the bump outs were a sticking point, she said.
“My hope had been that if we took that out of it, that people would be willing to accept the plan,” she said. “Obviously, that did not happen.”
As to the road diet’s short term future, Moeller said she wasn’t holding her breath, as absent member Alexander is historically opposed to the proposal. However, she hoped road diet supporters would continue to push for the project, she said.