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Paynesville Press - Aug. 27, 2003

Council asks MnDOT to drop far west bypass

By Michael Jacobson

The Minnesota Department of Transportation will consider dropping the far west bypass from consideration, following a special meeting on Monday night with the Paynesville City Council, the Paynesville Township Board of Supervisors, and the local Highway 23 task force.

Members of the Paynesville City Council – who eventually will need to agree to the changes MnDOT makes to Highway 23 – proposed dropping the far west bypass from consideration as a possible future route after voting unanimously in an informal survey that the city should not agree to yielding on the requirement that Highway 23 must touch the city limits of Paynesville.

Monday's meeting was held to discuss this council preference with the other groups and with MnDOT project engineer Lowell Flaten.

Since the council vote is unanimous on this issue, unless some drastic change in opinion occurs, the city would not approve improving Highway 23 using the far west bypass, even if it should be deemed best by the current environmental study, said Mayor Jeff Thompson.

MnDOT could be ready to approach the city for municipal consent by March 2004, said Flaten, while no council elections are scheduled until November 2004, meaning MnDOT would most likely need to get municipal consent from the current council.

While there is a process of arbitration if the city and MnDOT do not agree, without an agreement, the most likely outcome would be no improvements to Highway 23 in the Paynesville area, said Flaten, especially since the project has no funding at present. Controversy of such magnitude would not impress politicians to support funding for the project, nor would MnDOT have much stomach for controversy, since it already has lots of other pressing projects, said Flaten.

The far west bypass should be dropped from consideration so MnDOT and their consulting engineers can "narrow focus, save time, and maximize effort" on the other alternatives, said council member Dennis Zimmerman. The scariest alternative is to do nothing, said Zimmerman, and dropping the far west bypass should help MnDOT get the study done faster.

The group had a general agreement that the public had shown little interest in the Highway 23 study so far, with several members reporting that the most common comment was just wanting to know the final decision.

Council member Dave Peschong said dropping one route would send a message to the public that things are getting serious. If an option would be dropped, the public could focus on the remaining routes…and might be inclined to have their say before more decisions are made, said Peschong.

If the far west bypass were dropped, it would leave four choices: no build, improve the existing route through town, the east bypass, and the west bypass.

On Monday, council members expressed their unanimous opinion that the far west bypass should be dropped. Council member Harlan Beek said it was too far from town. Council member Jean Soine agreed.

Thompson said that he does not have a good answer when residents ask him why the far west bypass is still being considered and said he was looking for any reasons to do so.

Township supervisor Pat Meagher did speak in favor of the far west bypass, citing traffic volumes, noise levels, and congestion in the city due to heavy through-town traffic on Highway 23. He thinks these problems will get worse as traffic volumes increase as projected and asked the other members to watch traffic on Highway 23 for a half hour before deciding if Paynesville really wants to keep that traffic through town.

Meagher also believes that the far west bypass would provide the city with a natural area for expansion, but he expressed concern that a bypass route would be given preference by MnDOT over the roads that would go through Paynesville.

Exits to Paynesville should be "Y" intersections, and traffic opting to go through town neither should have to stop nor make right turns. This difference is terribly important, said Meagher.

Flaten said the preference at the exits would be determined by the traffic patterns. The recent traffic studies indicate that a majority of traffic would use a bypass.

Township supervisor Harry Thielen and township resident Ed Gottwald, whose property would be run over by the far west bypass, also expressed support for keeping that route under consideration at least.

Task force member John Janotta asked Flaten if dropping the far west bypass now was premature. Flaten said one fear he has had was that if they eliminated the far west and something fatal was found with the west bypass, it would only leave one bypass alternative (east) plus the through-town routes.

But Flaten added that all four of the other routes seem to be viable and that MnDOT could reconsider the far west bypass if the west bypass was found to have a fatal flaw. Dropping the far west and then bringing it back would likely prolong the highway study, said Flaten. It also should not be done for monetary reasons, added Flaten. Normally, it is better to study too much than too little, he said.

But based on the council's desire to speed the study and to show progress and their unwillingness to accept the far west bypass, Flaten agreed to bring the recommendation to drop the far west bypass back to MnDOT, which will make the final decision to keep studying the far west bypass or not.

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