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Paynesville Press - Feb. 5, 2003

Study of Highway 23 through Paynesville continues

By Michael Jacobson

After spending nine months conducting traffic surveys and counts, analyzing traffic data, and identifying other considerations for the future route of Highway 23 through Paynesville, engineers conducting the study of the road met last week with the local technical advisory committee and the local task force to share the information they have gathered.

The meeting with the task force lasted over three hours alone.

So far, engineers from Edwards and Kelcey - the firm hired by the Minnesota Department of Trans-portation (MnDOT) to conduct the study - have looked at possibilities for the different routes, identified concerns, and gotten ready to proceed to the next step of the study process: examining all these options and actually making a decision about the future route.

What the engineers have done so far is complete what they call the "scoping document," which identifies possible routes and the associated engineering, environmental, and social factors for each route.

People think the process is further along than it really is, said Lowell Flaten, a MnDOT engineer in Willmar. "We're nowhere near a decision yet," he said.

In fact, a decision about the future route of Highway 23 may still be a year away. The updated schedule for the project is to hold a public meeting in spring of 2003 on the scoping document. Then a draft Environ-mental Impact Statement (EIS) should be done by the winter of 2004. When it is finished, a public hearing will be held on it. Then, in the spring of 2004, the final EIS, with a selected route, should be done.

At last week's meeting, though, more information about the route options was released by Tom Parker, the project manager for Edwards and Kelcey. He showed maps of the four possible "build" alternatives: improving the existing route, an east bypass, a west bypass, and a far west bypass. (These maps were unavailable for reproduction this week but are available for viewing at city hall. A description of the routes can be found here.)

MnDOT, by rule, must also always study not building, not improving the road at all, to make sure that any proposed project is actually needed. Three other possible routes - all going north of town, including two on the abandoned railroad bed - are no longer being considered, said Parker. In addition to lengthing the road and taking it further from Paynesville, these routes all went by designated wetlands, which would make it hard to argue that they had the least environmental impact, an important consideration in an Environmental Impact Statement.

Jeff Bertram, president of the Paynesville Area Chamber of Commerce, and city councilman Dave Peschong, both members of the task force, pressed Flaten and Parker for more information, especially an inventory of houses and business that could be affected by each route. Just a rough counting on a map indicated three dozen homes and businesses that would be affected if Highway 23 would be improved and widened along its existing route through Paynesville, said Peschong.

"Everybody is getting a little antsy now," said Bertram.

"It's making people really nervous," added Peschong.

Parker apologized that it had taken so long to return with the factors to consider for each possible route, but the traffic analysis took this long to complete, he said.

By modeling traffic on Highway 23, Edwards and Kelcey determined that the existing Highway 23 gets Fs, a failing grade, for traffic flow in Paynesville by 2025. Parker said this indicates a need to do the project, as the nonbuild option operates poorly in handling traffic.

"Doing something versus not doing something does make a difference," he said.

Another traffic study - called the origin and destination study - indicated that half the drivers on weekdays either start their journey in Paynesville, end it in Paynesville, or planned to make a stop in town. According to Parker, this shows a need for any future route of Highway 23 to stay close to Paynesville, which is a point mentioned by several local businessmen who attended the meeting last week.

During summer peak traffic, by comparison, only 20 percent of the traffic either starts, ends, or stops in Paynesville, indicating a need to have faster flow through town.

This is exactly the point of an interregional corridor, a designation given to Highway 23. Interregional corridors are meant to have less local traffic (by limiting access) allowing thru-traffic to travel at faster speeds.

While there has not been a determination whether two or four lanes will be needed when the project is built, MnDOT will plan to have four lanes eventually and pursue a corridor to accomodate that, said Flaten.

In general, a four-lane highway is 300 feet wide, said Parker. This includes two ditches, two two-lane roadways, and a grass median. If they use an urban design in town, with curbs for dividers instead of shoulders, the highway possibly could take only half that space.

At an interchange, which are planned with Highway 55 for the bypass routes, the road could be much wider, possibly 1,500 feet, said Parke, with on ramps and off ramps. And, whether a two-lane highway or a four-lane highway is built, the engineering goal, since the road is an interregional corridor, will be to limit access and allow for greater speeds, said Parker.

The design speed for a new road could be 65 mph on a four-lane bypass outside the city limits and between 30-55 mph within town, depending on the number of lanes, route, design, and accesses.

Other engineering concerns to consider when finding the optimum route for Highway 23 are, according to Parker: the city, the airport, the Crow River, Highway 55, trust fund lands, the golf course, the city sewage ponds, the city well fields, and the substation. Social/environmental considerations are: the Crow River, wetlands, the high water table, farmland, noise, Lake Koronis, the floodplain, residential/business, the DNR trail, and the proposed pedestrian/ bike trail.

MnDOT pushing for limited access and faster speeds is exactly opposite local concerns, which are to keep access and to minimize speeds, said Mayor Jeff Thompson. Concerns from businessmen centered on how much traffic they could expect on a new Highway 23, especially one where access is limited and speeds are higher.

Local businessman Dick Johnson said that the far west bypass only touches the city of Paynesville superficially and should be dropped from consideration. Going so far out of town would turn Paynesville into a bedroom community, he said.

While that might be true and might prove that the far west bypass is not the best route, said Parker, "the thought to date has been that it's close enough to keep in consideration."

Every city that has had a four-lane highway built to it in the state has grown, except for Albert Lea, where a large plant closure cause a population drop, said Bob Dols, of the Highway 23 Task Force, a group (largely from Willmar) that is backing the project Traffic counts in downtown Willmar have gone up since the bypass was built there, he said.

Bertram said he hears the same thing: that local people like the bypass in Willmar because they can now get to the businesses they want to visit without fighting traffic.

But Johnson and David Lange, another local businessman, thought the comparison with Willmar was unfair since Willmar is more of a destination for shoppers. Lange said he sees lots of impulse buyers stop at H & L Express.

Mike Flanders, who represents Roseville Township on the local task force, noted that many drivers have an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. Parker agreed, saying that they need to keep the highway close enough or businesses may feel an impact. There is a certain distance that people seem to be willing to drive, Parker said.

On any plan, said Flaten, MnDOT and the city of Paynesville will have to agree or a new Highway 23 will not get built.

But, while they welcome public input and want to hear preferences and concerns, the final route will not simply be a matter of a "popularity contest," warned Flaten.

Information meetings The community needs to decide sooner rather than later about where it wants to see Highway 23 go, said Bertram. "I think people better start looking at the maps and they better talk to their city council members," he said.

"Nobody has told me not to build," added Bertram. "The question is how to do it."

Currently, the Highway 23 project in Paynesville is not funded within the next 20 years, said Dols. The Highway 23 Task Force hopes to lobby for federal funding - including traveling to Washington, D.C., in March, a trip that Mayor Jeff Thompson will be making to represent the city - to get seed money to spur MnDOT to give this project more priority.

"We need to come up with a plan. We need to agree to a plan. We need to be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease," said Peschong.

Copies of the latest maps of the four "build" alternatives are available for the public to view at city hall. They also should be available soon at the information repository for the project at the public library and online at

A public information meeting is expected within the next couple months. In the meantime, Flaten will speak at the Paynesville Area Chamber of Commerce noon luncheon at Northern Lights on Wednesday, Feb. 12. The city of Paynesville will hold a public meeting at city hall on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. to display the maps. And the local task force and technical advisory committees will meet again on Thursday, March 13, at 3 p.m. at the Paynesville Area Center.

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