Winona begins ferry service to cope with bridge closing

Boarding the ferry
Workers in Wisconsin board a ferry to take them across the Mississippi River to Winona, Minn. The ferry launched on Monday morning after MnDOT closed the Highway 43 bridge last Tuesday night.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Minnesota Nice may have reached an all time high this morning at the Wisconsin launch point for the ferry.

Commuters piled onto ferries to cross from Wisconsin to Winona. At 7 a.m. as one ferry loaded, another one launched. People were packed on like, well, sardines. And still they were smiling. And maybe you would be too, if your commute became chauffeured and subsidized.

Heidi Hurlburt lives outside of Galesville, Wis. That's about 20 miles from the bridge. Winona has chartered buses to pick up commuters at four Wisconsin locations both to the north and south of the bridge. Hurlburt says she drove to a pick up location in Centerville, boarded a commuter bus, and then got on the ferry.

Passengers board the newly launched ferry to move workers back and forth between Wisconsin and Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"It's an inconvenience, but there's been many accommodations made for people both through my employer paying for the services the ferry and bussing and cab rides, but even by the city of Winona to make this available," Hurlburt said.

Hurlburt's employer is covering the $15 weekly fee for using the ferries and buses. Most employers are not. But $15 dollars a week is far cheaper than driving the 60 mile detour route. The ferries run until 11:30 p.m. at night and start at 5:30 a.m. in the morning. But start up delays meant the first ferry didn't launch until 6 a.m. today. That put the commuter buses behind schedule. But eventually they caught up, and Hurlburt was on schedule.

Bridge inspections
MnDOT workers inspect the gusset plates on the Highway 43 bridge over the Mississippi River in Winona. MnDOT officials closed the bridge on Tuesday after an inspection found potential porblems with the plates.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Five minutes after she boarded, she's off the boat. Another group of commuters waits on the sidewalk next to the boat launch with their lunch pails. Ten minutes pass and a bus rolls up. The word "west" is scrawled in white on its windshield. Like a lot of things, the sign is improvised.

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"Where do you get off? I need to get off on the Fastenal CSP building," Hurlburt asked.

At the moment there are no designated bus stops. If someone wants to get off, she pulls the lever, and the bus stops.

Winona City Clerk Monica Hennessey Mohan says this is considered public transit, and it costs the city an additional $85,000 for just one week.

Ferry service between Wisconsin and Minnesota began Monday morning as commuters looked for ways to deal with MnDOT's closing of the Highway 43 bridge.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"The biggest numbers are for the boats," Mohan said. "The Island Girl is $6,000 a day, and the Explorer is $8,300 a day. It's primarily their fuel, their crew, and bringing the boat up here. Then we also have a total of eight additional buses running, four on each side of the river."

Mohan says the city hopes MnDOT will cover 80 to 100 percent of the cost. But that's usually agreed upon beforehand. Winona mayor Jerry Miller says the city didn't have time to work out an agreement.

"We don't have the money to do it. But we had to do something. And we can maybe contribute to that. We would rather somebody else picks up the whole thing," Miller said.

Miller says the ferries were critical to keeping the town alive, but he says they likely will not help retail businesses. Grocery stores and gas stations near the bridge have already seen a drop in business.

Sad bridge
A sad sign on an abandoned railway bridge next to the Highway 46 expresses the impact of the Highway 43 bridge closure on the local community.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

For passengers like John Newell, there's also the more immediate concern of getting back across the river.

"How do we get back on this bus.

Back over the route that we got, just stand out there and wait I guess.

That sounds like a plan," Newell said.

The City of Winona has to wait for a plan, too. MnDOT officials say they will hopefully have their engineering report on the Highway 43 bridge complete by the end of this week. That will determine whether the bridge stays closed.

For now, Winona plans to run the ferries this week and next.