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Paynesville Press - October 1, 2003

Highway task force discusses bypass routes

By Michael Jacobson

The Highway 23 Task Force met with engineers from MnDOT and consulting engineers conducting the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Highway 23 through or around Paynesville with the discussion centering around the three bypass options.

The city council has asked MnDOT to consider dropping the far west bypass from consideration for the time being, but MnDOT has not decided if it will or not. Meanwhile the east bypass faces some complications, both at the east end of town and getting past the golf course, and sentiment favoring the west bypass continues to emerge.

MnDOT has no position yet on the city's request to drop the far west bypass from consideration, said Lowell Flaten, MnDOT project manager. MnDOT was going to have a staff meeting this week to consider the city's request, added Flaten.

The task force differed on whether routes should be dropped from consideration already. One of the goals of the city council's request is that by having fewer routes it should be possible to complete the Highway 23 study sooner.

But some task force members felt that all the alternatives should be studied. Township resident Ed Gottwald, a task force member, said they aren't ready to move dirt anyway so why not look at all the alternatives.

City council member Dave Peschong spoke the strongest about moving forward quickly. He said a consensus was forming that the west bypass was the best route for Paynesville. "We know where we want the road to go," said Peschong. "Why can't you get on board?"

Right now, the engineers are adding another layer of detail to the plans for each route. This includes locating full interchanges at every access point to Paynesville on the bypass routes.

While the traffic volumes may never warrant a freeway configuration around town, the EIS demands using the largest possible footprint, said consulting engineer Tom Parker, who is directing the EIS. If they study too small now, they might have to go back and redo the EIS if the road would ever need to be expanded beyond the scope of the current study.

Full interchanges ideally need to be spaced a mile apart for traffic flow and safety, said Parker. For the west and east bypass routes, this means that an interchange at the end of the runway will not work. This not only would be too close to the interchange at Highway 55 but the height limits for the clear zone of the new airport would not permit the ramps and overpass for a full interchange.

So, if a full interchange is ever needed on the southwest end of town, it would actually be located west of the golf course, taking a half dozen houses in the development along Conita Circle.

"This is nothing that I ever expect to live to see," said Parker of having five interchanges for Highway 23 in Paynesville.

If Highway 23 were upgraded with one of these bypass routes, only one interchange would be built immediately, at the intersection with Highway 55, since this is the only place currently where traffic volumes are great enough to warrant an intersection. Since Highway 23 is an interregional corridor, they are designing an interchange between Highway 23 and Highway 55 in Paynesville.

MnDOT will only add interchanges when traffic really merits it, since a full interchange costs around $5 million to build, said Flaten.

Until then, an intersection could be placed at the end of the aiport.

In taking the east bypass to another level of detail, some issues on the east end of town have emerged. Highway 23 would need to thread its way between the city well fields and the Heatherwood Additions, have an intersection or interchange to serve the east end of town, cross or go below the railroad tracks, cross the river, and serve Minnie Street (for the Industrial Park), Co. Rd. 33, and 276th Street, a well-used township road serving Rice Lake.

The task force recommended Parker look at moving the proposed east bypass further to the southeast after it clears the city well fields and Heatherwood. This would require a longer bridge over the Crow River, since it is wider to the southeast but may solve some of the difficulties.

None of these are impossible to solve but may add cost to the project. "This one's got some problems, obviously," said Flaten.

High school principal John Janotta, who represents the school and the golf course on the task force, said that the east bypass is not good for either. The east bypass would run through the driving range, which is actually school property. Plus the school district holds some events at the golf course.

Plus, the east bypass would affect hole #2 at Koronis Hills, at least shortening the hole. Losing this hole would be disastrous to the course, said Janotta. Even if more land could be purchased to build another hole, the course's routing would be all wrong as there would be a gap between holes #1 and #3.

Janotta, who has grave concerns about the east bypass, wondered why other options should be ruled out at this time.

Actually, the city council rated the no-build option as the worst choice, even worse than the far west bypass, but the council has no power over dropping the no-build option.

But the far west bypass would require the city to drop the constitutional guarantee that Highway 23 touch Paynesville, which the city council has indicated it would not be willing to do.

The city council's resolution only calls for the far west bypass to be dropped from consideration for now. It does not call for it to be totally eliminated. If other routes would prove to be impossible, the far west bypass could then be reconsidered.

Any of the current options could be approved by MnDOT, said Jeff Bertram, a task force member and former legislator. But MnDOT will not back one that is not approved by the city. For this reason, since the city is opposed to the far west bypass, it makes sense to drop it.

A dealbreaker on the west bypass should be known by now, said Bertram. Parker agreed that one should be known but did not guarantee that it would. One issue that concerns Parker about the west bypass is a remnant prairie near the Highway 55 overpass over the railroad. The west bypass would need to miss this, said Parker.

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