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Paynesville Press - July 23, 2003

Option reconsidered for Highway 23

By Michael Jacobson

highway 23 cost chart

How traffic from Rice Lake - using 276th Avenue - gets to Paynesville was a key point of discussion when the Highway 23 Task Force met with engineer Tom Parker from Edwards and Kelcey last week.

The study choices for Highway 23 had been pared in what the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) calls scoping. In this paring, three routes north of town were eliminated from consideration, keeping four build alternatives (three bypass routes and improving the existing through-town route) and the no-build option.

Some options for the routes were also simplified. For example, the west bypass would now go on the west side of the row of businesses on the west end of town (Alco, the American Legion, etc.) instead of right by the school.

Getting residents who use 276th Street - which comes from Rice Lake - onto the new highway presents a problem. The idea for the west and far west bypass routes - which would run north of Paynesville just south of where 185th Avenue goes now - was to have it follow Co. Rd. 33 and rejoin the current Highway 23 just east of the bridge over the Crow River.

But putting an intersection there means MnDOT will not want an intersection at 276th Avenue. This is a heavily traveled township road, serving Rice Lake, including Cyrilla Beach Point, said Don Pietsch, a township supervisor and member of the task force. Without an intersection, the alternate route for these residents is to use 263rd Avenue, which intersects with Highway 23 another mile to the east. This route would send people in the direction of St. Cloud in order to get them to Paynesville, said Pietsch.

Also, since the land along the river may eventually be developed as residential housing, these people would live very close to the city but would have to drive a long way to get to town, added Pietsch.

For these reasons, this alternate was switched in the final scoping decision, said Tom Parker, a consulting engineer with Edwards and Kelcey, who is conducting the Environmental Impact Statement for Highway 23 improvements in the Paynesville area. This study looks at impacts of the possible routes and should identify the best one.

Instead of following Co. Rd. 33, the far west and the west bypass will be studied in the Environmental Impact Statement as heading straight east from the city sewer ponds and rejoining the current Highway 23 a mile or so out of town, said Parker. This will allow the road to have one intersection on the east end of town that serves 276th Avenue and the city of Paynesville.

This is the only change in the study parameters following the public scoping meeting and public comment period in June, said Parker.

Edwards and Kelcey and MnDOT held the public scoping meeting in June, with 135 area residents signing in that night at the school auditorium. MnDOT received 69 written comments, which Parker broke down as: 14 for the far west bypass, three against; 19 for the west bypass, two against; five for the east bypass, eight against; 11 for improving the thru-town route, 17 against; and four for not building, three against..

Multiple comments, said Parker, included that the west bypass was good because it was close to town; that the east bypass impacted the golf course and the school and separated the city and the lake; that improving the through-town route would continue to divide the town, continue to have high speeds, and increase pedestrian concerns, increase noise levels, and increase congestion. Comments about the business impact for improving the through-town were split, with some arguing that it would benefit business and others arguing that it would not, said Parker.

Edwards and Kelcey and MnDOT also held a scoping meeting for other public agencies. The only comments from public agencies about the project were the Department of Natural Resources stating concerns about freshwater mussels in the Crow River, about a prairie remnant by the Highway 55 overpass west of town, and about the wetlands and floodplain by the city sewer ponds.

Parker also contacted 16 Native American tribes to insure that they did not have any objection to the plans for Highway 23. Only the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe responded, saying they had no problem with the routes.

Last week, Parker also presented some data about traffic flow on a three-lane highway through town. Edwards and Kelcey looked at the projected traffic service for a three-lane highway through town at Washburne Avenue and at Highway 55 in 2025. At both intersections, the service was "C," the bare minimum that MnDOT wants when it does a road project. At Washburne, it was a low "C," almost a "D," said Parker.

Unless directed otherwise, Parker said he will plan for a four-lane bypass and four lanes through town. Once again, a half dozen local business owners attended the meeting with concerns about how any changes to the highway would affect them. In fact, concerned business owners nearly outnumbered the actual task force members.

Longtime businessman Harold Easterday said local businesses are concerned about having good access to the new highway. A lot of people "have built their businesses on 23 for many years," he said. "To take it away is tragic."The business owners discussed a number of access issues for the new Highway 23, including making the old highway a Business 23 if a bypass is chosen. They also discussed the proposed access at Lake Avenue north of Paynesville for the far west and west bypasses.

"In my eyes, that entrance stinks. It's not an entrance at all. It's not one that anyone not from Paynesville would use," said Dick Johnson, owner of Vern Johnson Motors, citing the layout of Lake Avenue, which runs straight into a feed elevator and requires a turn and going over the railroad tracks to reach downtown.

For local businesses, trying to get traffic to stop in Paynesville and patronize their business, a stoplight at Highway 55 would be much better than an overpass, said Johnson. A light can't cost much compared with all the offramps needed for an overpass, he added.

"There will be no stops," said Parker. "That's the whole point. If the state is going to invest money in this project, they don't want traffic to stop."

While MnDOT wants traffic to roll without stops, Johnson said Paynesville - at least the business community - should have other goals. "I think our process is to slow things down and get people to stop in town," he said. "We may need some stoplights."

While MnDOT's goal is to not have stoplights, both Spicer and Cold Spring will continue to have stoplights. While Edwards and Kelcey will not study stoplights in the Environmental Impact Statement, stoplights have less environmental effects than overpasses, so their inclusion could be negotiated with MnDOT when it actually comes time to build a new Highway 23 through or around Paynesville.

Any construction plans to improve Highway 23 would need to be approved by the city council, which could negotiate with MnDOT. Municipal consent, said Parker, "is a give-and-take to reach a final agreement."

The next step in the study, said Parker, is another refinement of the routes. Parker hopes to have these ready for the task force when it meets again in September: on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 1 p.m. at the Paynesville Area Center.

Parker said that he hopes to have a draft Environmental Impact Statement completed by the end of October. It could then be submitted to MnDOT for review in November. After that, said Parker, the process is under MnDOT's control. A public hearing on the draft Environmental Impact Statement could be held next winter, with the final version done next spring.

Parker said the Environmental Impact Statement would deal with significant issues with detailed analysis while covering nonsignificant issues in short shrift. For instance, said Parker, air quality, bikes and pedestrians, economic impact, farmland, floodplain, and wetlands will be studied in detail, while no impacts to endangered species or to transit have been identified.

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