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Paynesville Press - February 25, 2004

Highway 23 study delayed until summer

By Michael Jacobson

The public presentation of a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Highway 23 project, through or around Paynesville, has been delayed until summer 2004.

The draft EIS was originally scheduled for completion by the fall of 2002. Most recently, it was expected to be presented to the public in March 2004, but now it appears that the study will be ready for public presentation and comment by this summer.

"We're obviously behind schedule. They're some things that have just taken longer than expected," said Lowell Flaten, project engineer with MnDOT District 8 in Willmar.

The original schedule was probably too aggressive, said Flaten, in explaining why the project was now nearly 21 months behind schedule.

Primary research for the EIS is either completed or well on its way, said Tom Parker, the lead engineer with the consulting firm Edwards and Kelcey, who are completing the EIS for MnDOT. Edwards and Kelcey will have to do a wetland delineation this spring and a mussel survey on the Crow River.

They are also researching the history of the Civil War monument, located in the small triangular park across Highway 23 from Grace United Methodist Church.

Another factor in delaying the EIS was a fire in the Edwards and Kelcey building last fall. Though their office did not suffer any damage from the fire on the floor above them, the water used to put out the fire did not react well with their computers, said Parker.

Still, a rough draft of the draft EIS has been forwarded to the MnDOT District 8 office in Willmar for their review, acknowledged Flaten and Parker. Edwards and Kelcey and MnDOT will likely agree on the preferred alternative before the draft EIS is made public next summer. The public will have a 30-day comment period on the draft EIS once it is released next summer. MnDOT and Edwards and Kelcey will hold a public hearing in Paynesville roughly halfway through the comment period, said Parker.

Once comments are received during the comment period - from the public and from public agencies - Edwards and Kelcey will address any questions for the final EIS.

The draft copy of the draft EIS is a half inch thick, said Parker. He called the study - which looks at approximately six miles of potential highway (combined from all five route options) in the Paynesville area - as an average-sized EIS.

What makes it complicated, said Parker, is that the route options include rural routes - with issues like wetlands and wildlife, farmland and floodplain - and urban corridors - with issues like capacity, noise, safety, and traffic.

Developments in the project will be discussed at the next task force meeting on Tuesday, March 2, at 3 p.m. at the Paynesville Area Center.

Project funding
While the EIS for the Paynesville project is moving closer to completion, there has been no concrete steps in funding the project.

MnDOT only budgets for the next ten years, and the project is not included in that ten-year plan, said Pat Weideman of MnDOT District 8 in Willmar. The Paynesville project has been "penciled" in for 2017, he said, which would be the earliest it could be expected under MnDOT's expected funding.

Mayor Jeff Thompson spent two days in February lobbying in Washington, D.C., for federal funding for the Paynesville project along with a group of 12 from Willmar. The group met with Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minnesota), Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota), Rep. Colin Peterson (D-Detroit Lakes, Seventh District, whose district includes Kandiyohi and Meeker counties), and Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Chisholm, Eighth District), who is a key player in the House on transporation. They also met with a representative from the office of Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Watertown, Sixth District, including Paynesville.)

While all the Congressmen agreed that the Paynesville project could qualify for special funding and all seemed interested and supportive of the project, Thompson was not overly optimistic that it would receive federal funding. Peterson, for instance, seemed unwilling to spend any of his transportation allotment outside of his district, though he does represent Willmar, which is backing the project so their city could eventually have a four-lane route to I-94. Kennedy, on the other hand, actually represents Paynes-ville, but his district includes lots of transportation needs from the metro area, said Thompson.

Thompson said our best hope was getting funding through either Kennedy or one of the two senators from Minnesota. Thompson hopes that the Paynesville project will at least get enough funding to do the initial planning, so that a design using the preferred route can be done so Paynesville residents, the city, and the township will know the actual future route of Highway 23 and be able to plan accordingly.

Weideman, though, expects federal funding to be "all or nothing" since Congressmen usually like to have complete projects to show.

The federal transportation bill is expected to total between $250 and $350 billion. President Bush has proposed $256 billion and threatened to veto a larger bill. The Senate has proposed a $318 billion bill, and the House is expected to propose an even larger bill, up to $350 billion.

Project scope
Five route options are still being studied in the draft EIS: staying on the same alignment (through town, no improvements); improving the existing alignment (building either a three- or four-lane highway through town); east bypass (by the golf course and then south and east of town); far west bypass (north of town and then linking up with the current road near the Kandiyohi County line); and the west bypass (north of town and then turning and running between the high school and the new airport).

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