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Paynesville Press - Aug. 13, 2003

Council favors west bypass for Highway 23

By Michael Jacobson

Council SurveyA recent informal survey of the members of the Paynesville City Council indicates that body's preference for the west bypass for Highway 23.

The future route of Highway 23 is currently being studied by engineers hired by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to do an Environmental Impact Statement. This study should look at numerous factors and identify the best route for the future highway in or around Paynesville. The city is intimately involved in this process, with representatives on the technical group and local task force that are advising MnDOT.

The opinion of the city council is important in this process because city approval would be necessary for MnDOT ever to alter the route of Highway 23 in Paynesville.

In the council's first public discussion of the merits of the five routes still being considered - albeit an informal poll, composed by Mayor Jeff Thompson - the city leaders rated the west bypass a unanimous choice as the best route in the interests of the city and the best route in the interests of the community, although this vote was not unanimous and much closer.

Five possible future routes for Highway 23 are still under consideration: a no-build option, improving the route through town, and three bypass routes (east, west, and far west). The survey asked the five councilors - Thompson and council members Harlan Beek, Dave Peschong, Jean Soine, and Dennis Zimmerman - to rank the routes from one (best) to five (worst), first in the interests of the city and second from the standpoint of the entire community.

From a city perspective, the council members were unanimous, all five ranking the west bypass as the best option. From a community perspective, the west bypass still got three first-place votes, one second-place vote, and one fourth-place vote, which was still the lowest total.

This route is currently planned to run (starting from west of town) about a half mile east of the highway's present route, in the farm fields next to the new city airport. It would skirt the clear zone for the new airport and run behind the line of business across from Paynesville Area High School. It would cross the Crow River maybe a quarter mile to the west of the current bridge for Highway 55 and have an intersection with Highway 55 on the far side of the river.

Then this new highway would follow 185th Avenue (which would be used as a frontage road) around the north side of town, curve around the city sewer ponds, and reunite with the old highway a couple miles east of town.

The council, from a city perspective, rated the east bypass and improving the route through town as the next best options. Each of these routes got two seconds, two thirds, and a fourth. From a community perspective, the east bypass edged improving the existing route, based on one first-place vote, one second, and three thirds.

The council ranked the far west bypass fourth in both questions and the no-build option last in both. In fact, the no-build option was ranked dead last by four of the five councilors in both questions and only one person gave it a second-place vote and a third-place vote.

Despite ranking fourth, the city council expressed its dislike for the far west bypass, too. This route - since it does not touch the city - would require the city council to approve waiving its constitutional right to have Highway 23 service Paynesville, meaning touching the city limits. Or the city could conceivably annex land to touch the road, a possibility that has drawn criticism from business interests in the community.

In the third survey question, city council members indicated unanimously that they would not be willing to waive that constitutional right, meaning Highway 23 would need to touch the city limits. Thus, the council recommended that the far west bypass not be considered any further.

Whether that route is actually eliminated is not known, yet.

The city actually has its leverage once the Environmental Impact Statement is completed, when the actual construction plans are made by MnDOT. These need to be approved by the city council.

Until then, engineers will want to study the maximum possible effect of the road, because by its very nature, the Environmental Impact Statement is meant to determine the least impacts to the environment, etc. Therefore, the study only considers four-lane options for the highway and intersections (with no stoplights nor any stopping on Highway 23) for all the bypasses.

Intersections require more space, and thus have greater environmental impact than stoplights. An intersection could be changed to a stoplight through negotiation between the city and MnDOT, but a stoplight (if the only option studied in the Environmental Impact Statement) would require another environmental study if later expanded to a full intersection.

The city council survey differs slightly from two surveys of local business owners. The first, conducted by the Chamber of Commerce in January 2002, and the second, conducted this spring by several concerned business owners, indicated a top preference for improving the through town route.

But in both these surveys, opinions were split between the through town routes and the three bypasses, and in each the west bypass was a strong second.

In formal comments from the public to MnDOT this spring, the far west bypass also fared well. MnDOT received 69 formal comments: 19 for the west bypass, two against; 14 for the far west bypass, three against; 11 for improving the through town route, 17 against; five for the east bypass, eight against; and four for not building, three against.

Paynesville Township has no binding power over the Highway 23 route, but its supervisors have also been involved in the study. The township board has also had informal discussions about the route, agreeing that the city council should decide if it wants the highway to continue to go right through the city. The township board, at least in February 2003, though, was split on which bypass route was the best.

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