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Paynesville Press - July 18, 2001

Traffic count, bypass study to start on Highway 23

By Michael Jacobson

Bypass options Widening Highway 23 to four lanes from I-94 to Richmond starts this summer. Plans to widen the road from Willmar to New London are in their final stages.

But what happens in between - from New London through Paynesville to Richmond - has yet to be determined and will be studied this summer.

The engineers will be studying traffic counts on Highway 23 through Paynesville to determine if a four-lane road is justified and will be looking at possible bypass routes for the road, as shown in color above.

When this portion of Highway 23 around Paynesville was last studied, projections of traffic volumes up to 2020 did not warrant the construction of a four-lane road, said Lowell Flaten, a Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) engineer in the Willmar office responsible for the road through Kandiyohi County. MnDOT's Brainerd office is in charge of Highway 23 in Stearns County.

The Willmar office is contracting for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will update the traffic study and examine routes for a possible bypass. The EIS - which is expected to take two years - will be conducted by the engineering firm of Edwards and Kelcey.

The first part of the EIS will be to study traffic patterns along the highway. Traffic counts will be done to determine the number of vehicles using the road, the type of vehicles using the road, and the number of people in those vehicles. The volume - and projected future volumes - will be a factor in deciding if a four-lane road is warranted.

Beyond that, the traffic study will look at who is using the road and to where they are driving. This information will help determine if a bypass around the city is warranted.

Counts at key intersections will look at traffic patterns on Highway 23 through Paynesville. The engineers will also do an origin-destination survey in which a portion of the traffic will be stopped and the drivers asked about the starting and ending points of their trip. "We will be actually interviewing drivers on their way out of town," said Bob Sands of Edwards and Kelcey.

The origin-destination survey will be done for both weekday and weekend traffic. The weekend traffic will be studied on Sundays in August. The weekday traffic will not be done until September.

Along with the traffic studies, public input will be sought about any changes needed for Highway 23. The first public information meeting will be held in September 2001, and a full public hearing will be held in September 2002 when a draft of the EIS is ready.

Through previous studies, MnDOT has determined that some improvements to Highway 23 through the city of Paynesville are needed. "There has been a need identified," said Flaten, "whether any action is warranted has yet to be determined."

The second part of the EIS will be to study possible routes for a bypass. Five options have been identified to study so far, said Tom Parker, the project manager for Edwards and Kelcey. The options are: no improvements, to improve the existing roadway, a bypass south of the city, a bypass west and north of town, and a bypass starting where Highway 23 and 55 meet.

No action, no improvement always needs to be studied, said Parker. Improving the traffic flow along the existing route would involve changing intersections and providing more turning lanes.

The bypass options are just potential routes at present. The southern option was questioned already at a meeting with city and township officials at city hall last week. The golf course, the residential development in the area, and the possibility of a trail going to the lake were given as reasons against this route.

These might be a fatal flaw for this route, the engineers agreed, but the route remains technically feasible and will be studied. The purpose of the EIS is to study the possibilities and then narrow the choices. "When we come into these, we're better off having too many alternatives than too few," said Flaten.

The other bypass options would have Highway 23 redirected north of town. One possibility would be to leave the existing roadway somewhere west of Paynesville, cross Highway 55 somewhere west of town, go north of Paynesville, and rejoin the road east of town.

The other possibility would be to keep Highway 23 on its present route until it meets Highway 55, then cross the river with 55, and head north of town before rejoining the existing roadway again.

Flaten said MnDOT will not consider a route for Highway 23 that interferes with the site for the new airport.

A two-lane bypass around Paynesville might be warranted even if traffic volumes do not justify having four lanes. At the end of the study, a preferred route for a bypass will be identified, said Parker.

Improvements are needed on Highway 23 through Paynesville, the engineers concluded. Exactly what needs to be done will be determined by this two-year study, which should be completed by July 2003.

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