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Paynesville Press - March 12, 2003

Mayor goes to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Hwy. 23

By Michael Jacobson

Mayor Jeff Thompson accompanied a 15-member group of civic and business leaders from Willmar on a two-day trip to Washington, D.C., last week to lobby for federal funding for improvements of Highway 23 in Paynesville.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is currently conducting a study to determine the best future route for the highway through Paynesville. Three bypass routes are being considered, as well as improving the existing route. The Environmental Impact Study (EIS) that will be used to determine the best route should be done by December.

But MnDOT does not have any funding budgeted for an improvement project in Paynesville, which is why supporters of moving this project forward went to Washington, D.C., to meet with Congressional leaders. A six-year federal highway bill is due this year, and MnDOT has applied for high priority funding for Highway 23. While the details of the new bill are not known, since it is still being discussed in Washington, D.C., the last six-year federal highway bill, which totaled $218 billion, included $9.4 billion in high priority funding for 1,850 projects.

Thompson and members of the Willmar group had met with Congressmen from Minnesota at least twice before, once in Willmar and once in Paynesville. After the formal application for federal funds was submitted, the group went to Washington to lobby their case.

Thompson left in the morning on Monday, March 3, arrived in Washington, D.C., on Monday afternoon, spent Tuesday morning with the lobbying group at the capitol meeting with Congressmen and their aides, and flew home on Tuesday afternoon.

The group used the office of Congressman Colin Peterson (D-Detroit Lakes), who represents the Seventh Congressional District that includes Willmar, to meet with the Congressmen and their aides.

Peterson and the Congressmen had to come and go, depending on their individual schedules and the action on the floor of the House, but during the three hours the group met with Peterson; Congressman Mark Kennedy (R-Watertown), who represents the Sixth District, including Paynesville; Congressman Jim Oberstar, who represents northeastern Minnesota and is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastruc-ture; and Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska), who is the chairman of that committee.

Thompson said the group tried to make the best case for the project. He said they tried to impress that the project has regional impact. It would help vacation travelers get to northern Minnesota, it could stimulate economic development in southwestern Minnesota (which does not have a four-lane highway), and it could aid other transporation, since Willmar is a large rail hub with lines feeding both Dakotas, Montana, and Nebraska.

The $21 million that the group requested in federal funds should pay, if not for the entire project, then at least for a substantial portion of it. If the project does receive federal funding, the quickest scenario would be to start construction in 2007.

Young and Oberstar, as key members of the committee, will be crucial to getting federal funding for the project included in the next transportation funding bill.

Oberstar has a long track record of getting federal funding for his district. Thompson said he was most concerned with MnDOT, which he noted had to return over $100 million in federal funding last year.

While a competing project for high priority funding is expanding a highway to International Falls, in Oberstar's district, Thompson thought that Oberstar would be supportive of Highway 23. "If he can be convinced that this project has more merit, he would push this one," Thompson said.

Both Peterson and Kennedy are supportive of the project, said Thompson. Their main concern is that the Paynesville community needs to come up with a plan for the highway and then accept that route. Thompson said that politicians generally do not like to support projects that are unpopular and that they want to be sure the money is used if appropriated for Highway 23.

Thompson believes Paynesville should not sit back when it comes to Highway 23. "Something is going to happen, so let's get involved and help make decisions," he explained, "instead of letting others make decisions for us."

The traffic analysis indicates that the city will have problems if nothing is done to improve Highway 23. "If we stand in the way and become a barrier and buck the system, it's going to hurt us," he said.

The question is not whether something needs to be done but what needs to be done, said Thompson. Then the question becomes when should it be done.

Already at the public meeting last week, some members of the public complained about the uncertainty of the future of Highway 23. A show of hands, said Thompson, indicated that a third thought the project should move faster, a third thought it should go slower, and a third had no preference.

Thompson, though, wants things to happen faster. While he understands that having time to plan for an improved Highway 23 could be beneficial, he thinks the community will be better off if construction starts as soon as possible.

Knowing that the project is looming might cause businesses and homeowners to delay improvements and expansions. As an example, he noted that the city could look at expanding the Industrial Park, but does not want to do so until the route is known. Presuming that expansion will be done to insure easy access to Highway 23, why should there be a decade-long wait until Highway 23 is improved?

"I am pretty much convinced that to speed the process would be the least detrimental to our community," Thompson said.

Whatever route is chosen, Thompson hopes the community can continue its past history and not hold any grudges when the best route is determined. Having public input along the way should help insure that the best route is chosen, Thompson added, noting that the public meeting last week was not required but was offered to keep the public informed.

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