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Paynesville Press - February 8, 2006

MnDOT secures another $22 million for Paynesville project

By Michael Jacobson

MnDOT District 8 (Willmar office) secured an additional $22 million in federal funding from the District 8 Area Transportation Partnership last week for improving Highway 23 in Paynesville.

MnDOT District 8 requested the $22 million over three fiscal years, starting in 2009, when it currently is planning to start the project.

Funding for the Paynesville project - called the Paynesville bypass - was controversial because Paynes-ville lies just outside of District 8, which includes Kandiyohi and Meeker counties but not Stearns (which lies in District 3).

The Area Transportation Partnership for District 8 funds city, county, MnDOT, and transit projects in the southwestern corner of the state, all the way from Willmar to Pipestone. Funding for the Paynesville project passed by an 8-7 vote on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the ATP meeting in Willmar.

The funding - $7.5 million in fiscal year 2009, $7.5 million in fiscal year 2010, and $7.0 million in fiscal year 2011 - totals $22 million. In addition, MnDOT has $9 million in high-priority funds from last year's federal transportation bill, of which $5 million will be used for construction and $4 million for right-of-way purchases, according to MnDOT.

Additionally, MnDOT District 8 is committing $7 million in its funds, which along with the $22 million and $5 million, total $34 million, which is MnDOT's revised construction estimate for the Paynesville bypass. Right-of-way costs have also been reduced to $12 million, and MnDOT expects to use state transportation funds in addition to the $4 million in federal high-priority funds to completely fund the Paynesville project.

Opposition to the funding - not the project - was mostly a matter of geography, with the most southwesterly members of the board voting against it while the northern members and the MnDOT representatives voted for it. (The ATP board is comprised of county commissioners, city and county engineers, and MnDOT representatives.)

A number of counties in southwestern Minnesota had passed resolutions opposing the use of ATP funds outside the district, and these representatives on the ATP board voted against funding the Paynesville project.

The mayor of Milan, who is not a member of the ATP board, said during public comment that he did not oppose the project but could not justify the use of district funds 75 miles from Milan.

On the other hand, Greg Hilding of Willmar, a member of the Highway 23 Task Force, spoke in favor of the Paynesville project as a key four-lane access for southwestern Minnesota. Most of the communities that are growing in the state are located on key corridors, he noted in urging the board to make it "a reality."

District 8 engineer Dave Trooien also spoke in favor of the Paynesville project, saying in his 14 years in District 8 he has consistently heard about the need for a four-lane highway from truckers, county commissioners, and politicians.

"Where do we start?" he asked. "The logical place is where there is the most traffic. That's Highway 23 heading north."

He also explained the great needs of District 3, in which Paynesville actually sits, but which has lots of project needs in the eastern half of its district with the Elk Rivers, Buffalos, Rockfords, St. Clouds, and Brainerds. Their other needs, understandably, make this a priority for District 8, he said.

Gary Johnson, a county commissioner in Yellow Medicine County, asked Trooien if future ATP funds would need to be spent outside the district completing the Paynesville to Richmond segment. (The Paynes-ville project only includes building four lanes in a six-mile segment around Paynesville; Paynesville to New London and Paynesville to Richmond will still be two lanes when this project is done.)

Trooien told Johnson that no District 8 funds would be spent on the Paynesville to Richmond segment and that MnDOT District 8 hopes the increased traffic will eventually force District 3 to improve that segment.

In fact, though, expanding Highway 23 from Paynesville to Richmond is included on District 8's project list for 2024-2030, and it would require more ATP funds to do, according to MnDOT. (District 8 also includes expanding Highway 23 to four lanes from Paynesville to New London in 2015-2023 in its long-range plan completed in 2005.)

Against the pressure to spend ATP funds within the district, Highway 23 being the most likely future four-lane highway for Willmar and southwestern Minnesota eventually prevailed in the voting. "If we look at this total project, if we ask ourselves, 'What project would be better in total for southwestern Minnesota?,' I don't think there is one," said McLeod County Commissioner Sheldon Nies, who voted in favor of funding for Highway 23, in comments that drew applause from the Willmar contingent.

With the $7 million in MnDOT District 8 funds committed to the project, this totals $30 million to be spent out of District 8, countered Bob Fenske, a Lyon County Commissioner who voted against funding the Paynesville project.

In the end, the key swing vote was ATP board chair Jack Keers, a county commissioner from Pipestone County. "I don't like spending money outside the district," he said, and he acknowledged the opposition from county boards and legislators in southwestern Minnesota.

Though he wished he could say the best project for District 8 was to make Highway 23 four lanes from Marshall to I-90, improving High-way 23 through Paynesville was the best project for district, he said.

Voting in favor of spending $22 million in ATP 8 funds for the Paynesville project were: Nies; Keers; Ron Kutzke, Meeker County Commissioner (including Union Grove Township); Meeker County engineer Ron Mortensen; and MnDOT representatives Trooien, Tom Behm, Todd Broadwell, and Keith Voss.

Voting against were: Fenske; Johnson; Jim Dahlvang, Chippewa County Commissioner; Lyon County engineer Anita Benson; city of Marshall engineer Glenn Olson; Chippewa County engineer Steve Kubista; and transit rep Bill McVicker.

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