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Paynesville Press - February 2, 2005

Draft EIS for Highway 23 delayed until at least March

By Michael Jacobson and Bonnie Jo Hanson

The publication of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Highway 23 in Paynesville - the study that will determine the future route of the highway - has been delayed again.

The soonest the draft EIS could be published is early March, according to Lowell Flaten, project manager for MnDOT. If the draft EIS were published in early March, a public hearing - part of a 45-day official comment period - could be held later in the month.

The Federal Highway Admini-stration, which must approve the final EIS, requested additional data for the draft EIS, said Flaten, causing the delay. MnDOT and its consulting engineers (Edwards and Kelcey) had hoped to publish the draft EIS in January.

Whether the draft EIS will be ready by March will depend on how soon MnDOT, and others, get the additional data to Edwards and Kelcey, said Flaten.

The draft EIS also needs to be submitted to the Corps of Engineers, which has a month to review the document before publication.

March is the soonest the draft EIS could be ready, according to Flaten. The Paynesville City Council - at their meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 26 - reaffirmed their desire to see Highway 23 improved in Paynesville and their opposition to the far west bypass route. Since Highway 23 must touch the city limits - and the present far west bypass does not - the city council had originally asked MnDOT to temporarily drop the route in August 2003 in hopes of speeding up the Highway 23 study.

MnDOT, in October 2003, decided to keep studying the far west bypass, citing that the research on this route was nearly complete so it might as well be included.

New city council members Jeff Bertram and Tom Lindquist agreed with these resolutions, joining incumbents Jean Soine and Dennis Zimmerman and Mayor Jeff Thompson.

Last week, the city council also agreed to write a letter to MnDOT expressing the city's dissatisfaction with the repeated delays for the draft EIS on Highway 23.

This study of Highway 23 began in July 2001 and originally was expected to be done in two years. The draft EIS, according to the original schedule, should have been released in the fall of 2002.

Once the draft EIS is published (in both state and federal publications), a 45-day official comment period starts. MnDOT has said that hard copies of the draft EIS will be available locally at city hall and the public library, and Edwards and Kelcey has stated that it will post the document on the Internet.

Last fall, state and federal officials, along with the consulting engineers, determined that the draft EIS would not name a "preferred alternative," which would become the future route of Highway 23. In order to name a "preferred alternative" in the draft EIS, it must be "measurably better," according to the consulting engineers, and none of the five options in the draft EIS meet that standard.

The five potential routes studied in the draft EIS are: keeping the existing alignment (no build); improving the thru-town route; and three bypass options (east, far west, and west).

MnDOT and the consulting engineers intend to use comments after the publication of the draft EIS to determine a "preferred alternative" for Highway 23. During the official comment period, the public will be able to make comments by speaking at a public hearing, by speaking privately at the public hearing, or by submitting written comments.

Once the draft EIS is published and a "preferred alternative" is selected, it should take another 18 months or so for the final EIS to be completed.

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