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Paynesville Press - January 4, 2006

Council sends another letter to MnDOT

By Michael Jacobson

The Paynesville City Council agreed last week to send a letter to MnDOT District 8 (Willmar office), thanking them for adding a full interchange to their Highway 23 plans for Paynesville but also expressing concerns about speed, that a bypass should be four lanes, and about the need to keep amenities in the construction budget.

The council discussed Highway 23 for 40 minutes at their meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 28, and agreed to send a letter expressing these concerns to MnDOT's Willmar office.

The discussion started with information received from MnDOT District 8 by letter from project manager Lowell Flaten, received on Tuesday, Dec. 27.

"On the matter of speed limits, the typical speed limit ranges for a 2A highway classification are 55 mph to 65 mph, although there is no minimum and the maximum is 65 mph. The speed study will not be performed until a month or two after the opening of the new four-lane, most likely fall of 2010. This will allow drivers to get accustomed to the roadway," wrote Flaten.

Councilor Jeff Bertram said a speed limit under 50 mph would be foolish but said he read MnDOT's letter to say that the speed limit would be 65 mph.

Council member Dennis Zimmerman disagreed, saying that a speed study will determine speed, including safety concerns.

Bertram responded that in a dozen cases of which he has knowledge, a speed study has never lowered the speed limit. "It's going to be 65," he said. "If we're not willing to do something, it's going to be that fast."

Mayor Jeff Thompson said he had asked MnDOT to do a speed study from the eastern city limits to Minnie Street and was told by MnDOT that he may not want to do one because it could raise the speed limit. In that case, he figured the speed limit already was 55 mph, so MnDOT couldn't raise it much.

Reasons for safety, expressed by the council, were primarily safety and local access.

Flaten also included a MnDOT brochure about speeds, which listed the standards speeds for expressways (2A classification means rural expressway) as 65 mph.

The brochure also said:
"Will lowering the speed limit reduce speeds? No. Studies show that there is little change in the speed pattern after the posting of a speed limit. The driver is much more influenced by the roadway conditions and environment."

"Will lowering the speed limit reduce crash frequency? No. Although lowering the speed limit is often seen as a cure-all in preventing crashes, this is not the case. Crashes are most often the result of driver inattention and driver error. However, if a posted speed limit is unrealistically low, it creates a greater speed variance (i.e. some drivers follow the speed limit while most drive the reasonable speed). This speed variance can contribute to crashes."

"Even if we do take a position (on speed), it may be 65 mph," Bertram said, and then suggesting that the city send a letter thanking MnDOT for their revisions to the plans so far and expressing further conerns.

Zimmerman questioned whether this was wise, since MnDOT reps had told the council earlier in the month that they did not want to consider any further changes.

"What they want more than anything is our unanimous approval," said Bertram, adding that a project to improve Highway 23 was also in the best interests of the city.

"We've still got time," said Bertram, referring to the schedule for municipal consent (see below). "There's time for some discussion. I don't see this as a dealbreaker."

"Funny," responded Zimmerman, "I heard them say it would be a dealbreakerŠif we come back with any further changes."

Council member Tom Lindquist asked about official notice from MnDOT, requesting municipal consent, which had not been received by the time of last week's meeting. Then he said that a feeler letter to MnDOT was fine by him.

It doesn't hurt to ask, agreed council member Jean Soine.

"If we don't ask," said Bertram, "we're not going to get it."

Even if the city approves a plan for Highway 23 with conditions, MnDOT could accede to conditions, noted Thompson.

Only by sticking together, said Bertram, like they did in November in getting an interchange on the west end of town, could they negotiate successfully with MnDOT.

Zimmerman said a feeler letter was OK. He said that he was not against bargaining but did not want to jeopardize the project. "I think the failure to get this done now would be a major setback to the city," he said.

Flaten also included the timelines for municipal consent, which the Press reported two weeks ago.

Once the city receives the formal request from MnDOT, within 15 days the council must set a date for a public hearing. The public hearing must have 30 days of public notice and must be held within 60 days of the formal request by MnDOT for municipal consent. This public hearing now could be scheduled for February at the earliest.

The city council then has 90 days after the public hearing to consider giving its municipal consent, according to MnDOT policy. With a public hearing in February, the council members could consider municipal consent until May.

The council can give municipal consent by passing a resolution or by not taking any action within that 90-day window.

The council could also deny the municipal consent or pass it with conditions. This is considered a denial unless MnDOT agrees to the city conditions.

If the council agrees, the project moves forwards, with MnDOT still consulting the city but not needing any formal approval from the city unless it alters the access, capacity, or right of way of the final plan.

If the city denies the plan under municipal consent, MnDOT could withdraw, appeal, or change their proposal. If MnDOT withdraws, they could keep the Draft EIS open and then re-examine its findings in the future; then, they could choose another "preferred alternative."

If the project is delayed, MnDOT could use its current $10 million for right-of-way purchases, but it cannot start construction without municipal consent (or by winning the appeals process).

Four Lanes
Local business owner Stan Yarmon, who represents a local group of businessmen concerned about speed and access to the new Highway 23, questioned if the municipal consent was being done at the right time and whether the city was getting enough information from MnDOT. Citing state statutue, he said the "final layout" should include a number of items - traffic lanes, shoulders, intersections, etc. - and wondered if the current plan was detailed enough.

The council said that not all the details will be known before the city is asked for municipal consent. Bertram said they would only have about 30 percent of the details, which is putting the cart before the horse.

City attorney Bill Spooner said that the city has no control over some of these issues, as municipal consent is really about location only. Without municipal consent, Bertram added, MnDOT would have chosen another route, the far west alternative he believes.

Yarmon said that he and his group were worried that MnDOT would not be able to fund the entire plan and worried about things like the west-end interchange being omitted for years or for MnDOT to build only a two-lane bypass. If MnDOT wouldn't build the intersection for ten years, they might as well build the far west, he said, and if they can only build a two-lane bypass, the business community would prefer using the present three-lane route through town for a few more years.

Even a two-lane bypass with free-flowing traffic would be good, said Zimmerman.

Thompson told the council that he had asked MnDOT about building an at-grade intersection on west end as a cost-saving measure until an interchange is needed but was told by MnDOT that the cost savings would not be enough to justify deviating from the current plan and that MnDOT would rather build it all at once.

The current cost of the MnDOT proposal for Highway 23 is $46.5 million, with a tentative 2009 construction date. MnDOT currently has $10 million in dedicated federal funds for this project but needs to find additional sources of funding.

One source is expected to be the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8 Southwest Minnesota Area Transportation Partnership (ATP), from whom MnDOT District 8 will seek $22 million in additional funds.

Last week, the Yellow Medicine County Commissioners passed a resolution stating that they believe these transportation funds should be spent in District 8. (Paynesville actually lies within District 3, though the Willmar District 8 office has agreed to pursue the Highway 23 project in Paynesville.) The Yellow Medicine County Commissioners recommend that the use of District 8 funds for this project be opposed unless equal funding is provided by District 3.

Bertram said another concern for him was to keep amenities (niceties he called them) in the construction budget for the Highway 23 project. (The addition of a full interchange on the west end added $1 million to the estimated project cost, which is now $46.5 million.

Amenties include things like nice lights on Highway 23, and Bertram said Paynesville should want attractive lights like Cold Spring.

MnDOT will provide lights at interchanges and intersections, said Thompson, with others at city expense without the funds for amenities.

Bertram asked the other council members for topics but - other than the four-lane bypass - none emerged during the discussion. Bertram said he remains convinced that MnDOT will need to eventually add stoplights in Paynesville for safety, like they have done in Richmond.

"Everybody could see it coming in Richmond. Everybody could see it coming in Cold Spring," he said, lamenting the fact that it might take a few accidents to get the stoplights. Flaten's letter to the city also reiterated MnDOT's conclusion that they cannot pay for upgrades on Lake Avenue, which the city had requested, as it is expected to become a major route to the downtown area and to the Industrial Park. MnDOT will only need to reconstruct 50 feet of Lake Avenue, Flaten wrote, leaving the rest as a local project.

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