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|Paynesville Press - March 16, 2005|
Highway 23 study delayed until June
The draft Environment Impact Study (EIS) - the nearly four-year-old study to determine the future route of Highway 23 in Paynesville - has been delayed again. Last week, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and their consulting engineers (Edwards and Kelcey) announced a new schedule for the publication of the draft EIS.|
Instead of publication in March, as the previous schedule had predicted, the draft EIS is now expected to be published in late May with a public hearing in June. Comments at the public hearing will help determine the "preferred alternative," or future route of Highway 23.
MnDOT project manager Lowell Flaten urged people to remain patient with the process. It is important for MnDOT to be thorough in completing the draft EIS, he said. "We really don't want to run into problems later where someone questions our procedures and questions our conclusions," he explained.
Five options for Highway 23 are being studied in the draft EIS: keeping the existing thru-town route; improving the thru-town route; and three bypass routes (east, far west, and west).
There are three ways to schedule, according to Flaten, the most optimistic, the most pessimistic, and the most realistic. While admitting that they had used optimistic schedules in the past, Flaten hoped that the new schedule would follow the realistic approach.
Edwards and Kelcey just submitted the draft EIS to the Corps of Engineers for comments in late February, a step that was expected to be done in November last fall. The Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration are now expected to complete their review of the draft EIS by April, a step previously expected by Christmas.
Edwards and Kelcey will then have three weeks to address these comments in the draft EIS. The time to incorporate these comments has been lengthened from one week to three weeks in the new schedule. The draft EIS is expected to be published in mid-May. Notification of availibility will be published in the Federal Register and in the EQB Monitor. Copies of the draft EIS are expected to be available locally at Paynesville City Hall and at the Paynesville Public Library. Edwards and Kelcey representatives have said that they also would make the document available on the Internet.
Once the document is published, a 45-day official comment period will begin. Since several routes still are feasible in the draft EIS, MnDOT still plans to use comments from the public in determining the "preferred alternative," or future route, for Highway 23, according to Flaten.
A public hearing will be held in Paynesville during this official comment period, where comments will be taken on the draft EIS. Written comments will also be taken on the draft EIS.
Following the closing of the official 45-day comment period in July, MnDOT will use the comments and the information from the draft EIS to chose the "preferred alternative," according to Flaten.
The "preferred alternative" is now expected to be chosen in July or August, before the first version of the final EIS is ready in mid-August. The final EIS and the record of decision, officially making the "preferred alternative" the future route of Highway 23 for Paynesville, are now expected by March 2006, according to the new schedule.
The draft EIS was started in July 2001. The publication of the draft EIS was originally expected by the fall of 2002 with the record of decision originally expected by the summer of 2003. Based on the new schedule, the draft EIS would be published 33 months behind the original schedule.
The new schedule was greeted with sarcasm by the Paynesville City Council last week. The council sent a letter to MnDOT in January expressing the city's dissatisfaction with the repeated delays for the draft EIS.
House passes transportation bill, including $4.5 million for Highway 23
Included in the bill is $4.5 million in special funding for Highway 23 improvements in Paynesville. Of that, $2.5 million would come from the Sixth Congressional District, and $2 million from the Seventh Congressional District.
"This is a starting point for significant transportation improvements," said Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Watertown), who represents the Sixth District. "I'm pleased that our hard work will bring his much-needed funding. I hope the Senate will act quickly. This bill has been blocked for too long."
This transportation bill is new. A version passed last year in the House included $5 million for Highway 23 in Paynesville, but it never was became law, as the conference committee assigned to reconcile the House and Senate bills did not reach agreement in time.
Other Sixth District projects ($45 million in all) in the new bill include $16 million for four projects in St. Cloud (the largest being the Sauk Rapids Bridge at $6 million), $5 million for Highway 55 expansion in Wright and Stearns counties, and $2.5 million for Highway 10 improvements from St. Cloud to Blaine.
While Paynesville does not lie in the Seventh District, funding for it was included among Seventh District projects because of its importance as a link from southwestern Minnesota to Interstate 94 and St. Cloud, said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Detroit Lakes).
"Although this project is not actually located in my district, I understand the need for this highway and the economic implications it has for Willmar," said Peterson. "This project will connect Willmar and southwestern Minnesota to St. Cloud and I-94. Much of the recent economic growth in southwestern Minnesota has been focused on the Highway 23 corridor. The lack of a reliable travel time between Willmar and I-94 in St. Cloud has been cited by several businesses as reasons they have chosen not to locate in southwestern Minnesota."
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