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Paynesville Press - April 14, 2004

MnDOT sets timeframe for Highway 23 project

by Michael Jacobson

Additional federal funds prompted the Minnesota Department of Transportation to announce last week that the Highway 23 project, through or around Paynesville, will be done in either 2007 or 2008.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Detroit Lakes) - who represents Minne-sota's Seventh Congressional District, including Kandiyohi County and Willmar - announced last week that another $2 million has been authorized for Highway 23 in Paynesville as a high-priority project in the House transportation bill.

Last month, Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Watertown) - who represents Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District, including Paynesville - announced that he had included $3 million for the Paynesville project among the high-priority projects in his district.

With $5 million in federal funding for Highway 23 in Paynesville, which would need to be used in six years or be lost, "we're going to have to deliver some sort of project," said Pat Weideman, director of planning for MnDOT District 8 in Willmar.

"With $5 million of federal funding marked to go to the Paynesville project, MnDOT will accelerate the project - assuming the (federal transportation) bill is passed and the president signs it into law - to the 2007-08 time frame," Weideman added.

Since the route has yet to be chosen and all the engineering designs need to be done still, the earliest the project could be done is the summer of 2007, said Weideman. Work might not actually begin until 2008.

Previously, without the federal funding, MnDOT had the Highway 23 project in Paynesville tentatively scheduled for 2017.

Groups from Paynesville and Willmar have gone to Washington, D.C. twice to lobby for federal funds in this six-year transportation bill.

Peterson said including funding for the Paynesville project was difficult because Paynesville actually does not sit within his district. "This wasn't easy to do because although I support getting the work done on the Highway 23/Paynesville bypass, this project is not actually located in my district. However, because I understand the need for this project and the economic implications it has for Willmar, I put in some extra effort working with House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), and as a result I was able to get an additional $2 million authorized for this project."

Highway 23 is a critical link in the state's transportation network that serves the rich farm country of westcentral Minnesota, which he represents, and Highway 23 connects Willmar and southwestern Minnesota to St. Cloud and I-94, said Peterson.

Much of the recent economic growth in southwestern Minnesota has been focused on the Highway 23 corridor, he noted. The lack of reliable travel time between Willmar and I-94 near St. Cloud has been cited by several businesses as reasons they have chosen not to locate in southwestern Minnesota. "A four-lane highway that gives Willmar direct access to St. Cloud is key for economic development in southwestern Minnesota," Peterson said. "I congratulate city leaders and thank them for their efforts on this project. This will help revitalize the economy and provide safe efficient routes to markets."

The House passed the Transportation Equity Act on Friday, April 2, by a margin of 357 -65. The bill will now go to a House-Senate conference committee that will reconcile the differences between the House and Senate bills. If this process proceeds smoothly, the bill could be signed into law as early as June, said Peterson.

Weideman is still hopeful that more federal money could be included for Highway 23. Senators do not allocate their funds for high-priority projects until after the conference committee, giving hope that either Minnesota senator could provide additional funding for Highway 23.

Right now, $5 million of federal funds will not pay for the total project, either a four-lane highway through town or a four-lane bypass, said Weideman. Current cost estimates for the Highway 23 project in Paynesville range from $18 to $23 million for a four-lane highway.

The project may need to be scaled back depending on how much state funding is available and on how much more federal funds could be secured, said Weideman. Funds may limit a bypass to two lanes, for instance, or not permit for the building of an interchange right away. The final design for the Highway 23 project in Paynesville will need to take in account the funding available, Weideman said.

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