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Paynesville Press - March 31, 2004

Federal funds possible for Highway 23 project

By Michael Jacobson

Federal funding for Highway 23 improvements in Paynesville was included in the six-year transportation bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week.

In the bill, $3 million was included for Highway 23 in Paynesville as a high-priority project in the House bill. "We know how important roads are for rural communities for development, and we heard that about Highway 23," said Congressman Mark Kennedy, who had the money included among high-priority projects in the Sixth Congressional District that he represents, including Paynesville.

Currently, improvements to Highway 23 are being studied by the Minnesota Department of Trans-portation through an Environmen-tal Impact Statement. Improving the current through-town route and three bypass options are being considered, with MnDOT picking a preferred alternative by next summer.

But, MnDOT does not have funds to actually construct improvements to Highway 23 in Paynesville. At present, the project is "penciled" in to be done in 2017.

"I guess when we get the money we'll see how we can use it," said MnDOT engineer Lowell Flaten, who is directing the study of Highway 23 in Paynesville. "But it certainly moves us a step closer to (making improvements to Highway 23) in Paynesville."

"It probably won't go far. It's not the 80 percent we were looking for," said Jeff Thompson, Paynesville's mayor, who has made two trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal funds for the Highway 23 project. While disappointed in the amount Thompson was pleased that some federal money could be allocated for the Paynesville project. The $3 million could be a "carrot " for MnDOT to complete the project in the next six years, noted Thompson, or face losing these extra federal funds.

Current cost estimates for the Highway 23 project range between $18 and $23 million, meaning that these direct federal funds will only cover part of the cost. (Widening Highway 23 to three lanes in Paynesville is estimated to cost only $3 million, but that has essentially been ruled out as an option because it would not handle traffic adequately in the long term.)

But the high-priority funding is only a fraction of the overall federal transportation bill. Most of the money goes directly to state agencies, like MnDOT, for projects.

The goal of directing federal money to specific projects is to give them priority, by offering extra federal dollars to encourage their completion, according to Kennedy, who also secured $1 million in federal funding a year ago for Highway 23. Kennedy said his office heard concerns about Highway 23 in "stereo" from Paynesville, St. Cloud, and Willmar.

In Kennedy's Sixth Congressional District, 13 high-priority projects would receive $35 million in funding according to the House bill passed last week. Other high-priority projects in Stearns County include $6 million or right-of-way acquisition and construction of Eighth Street in St. Cloud and $0.75 million for the realignment of Third Street north of St. Cloud.

It also includes $5 million for improvements of Highway 55 in Stearns and Wright counties, aimed at improving that road as a route into and out of the metro area. That money would go for making a cooridor plan and then to tackle some high priority improvements along the cooridor, said Kennedy, such as improving some interchanges or purchasing right of way.

The high-priority funding is part of a $275 billion six-year federal transportation bill in the House. The Senate passed a $318 billion transportation bill in February, and the final bill will need to be decided in conference committee.

President Bush has indicated that he supports only a $275 billion bill. Kennedy said that he will work to keep all the funding for high-priority projects in his district in the final bill. "One of my goals in coming to Washington was making sure we all spend less time stuck in traffic," he said. "This bill helps us meet that goal."

Thompson hopes federal funding will allow for better planning and sooner construction of Highway 23. He sees the Highway 23 decision and construction as "a big cloud hanging over" the community, stifling land purchases, housing construction, and business improvements as people wait to learn about Highway 23. Even if the federal funds do not allow for the actual construction, it could make more detailed planning possible - so businesses would know about future access roads, etc. - reducing the unknowns surrounding the Highway 23 project, he said.

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