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Paynesville Press - October 6, 2004

Draft EIS expected for Highway 23 in January

By Michael Jacobson

The draft Environmental Impact Statement for Highway 23 - used to determine the future route for the highway in the Paynesville area - should be released around the first of the year.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) had hoped to release the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in November, but the Federal Highway Department requested additional time to review the draft document at a meeting on Monday, Oct. 4, according to Lowell Flaten, project manager for MnDOT.

So instead of having a meeting for the local Highway 23 Task Force in October and the release of the draft EIS and public hearing in November or early December, MnDOT now hopes to hold a task force meeting in December and have a public hearing for the draft EIS in January.

The Federal Highway Administration also informed MnDOT that it believes a "preferred alternative," or best route, should not be identified in the draft EIS. Flaten said that MnDOT still believes that three possible bypass routes for Highway 23 - the east bypass, far west bypass, and west bypass - are feasible traffic-wise and environmentally. While one, the west bypass, is more popular, said Flaten, the Federal Highway Administration wants the three bypass routes to be treated equally in the draft EIS.

If you have a clearly superior alternative, explained Tom Parker, the lead engineer for Edwards and Kelcey, which is conducting the EIS for MnDOT, then you should identify it as the preferred alternative in the draft EIS. If the choices are close to even, then you should not identify a preferred alternative.

While a popular alternative exists (the west bypass, which was recommended to MnDOT by the local task force and by the Paynesville City Council), in handling traffic and environmental impacts, all three bypass routes are still viable, according to the draft EIS, an inch-thick document, said Parker.

Comments during the review period of the draft EIS then could shape the choice of the preferred alternative, which MnDOT and the Federal Highway Administration will choose, hopefully by March 2005, following comments on the draft EIS from governmental agencies and from the public.

The draft EIS could be reviewed by the Highway 23 Task Force in December. It then will be officially published at the state and federal level, and copies will be sent to various government agencies, including the city of Paynesville and Paynesville Township, said Parker. Once published, copies of the draft EIS should be available locally at city hall and at the public library. A public hearing will be held in Paynesville roughly midway through the 30-day official comment period. Residents can express their opinions at their hearing or submit them in writing.

All these comments will be reviewed and responded to in the final EIS, including any additional research. It generally takes two or three months to finish the final EIS after the comment period for the draft EIS ends, said Parker, depending on the complexity of the questions raised about the draft EIS.

Five options for Highway 23 are being considered in the draft EIS: keeping the existing alignment, improving the current thru-town route, and three bypass routes (east, far west, and west).

This study of Highway 23 began in July 2001 and originally was expected to be done in two years. The draft EIS, according to the original schedule, should have been released in the fall of 2002, two years ago.

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