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Paynesville Press - October 27, 2004

Detailed schedule released for Highway 23 draft EIS

By Michael Jacobson

MnDOT and its consulting engineers confirmed that the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Highway 23 would be released early in January 2005 at a meeting with the local highway task force last week.

chart MnDOT project manager Lowell Flaten and consulting engineer Tom Parker also clarified the schedule for the draft EIS and explained to the task force why a "preferred alternative" will not be identified in this document and how and when the future route of Highway 23 will be determined in the Paynesville area.

To name a "preferred alternative" in draft EIS, it must be "substantially better," said Parker, who works for Edwards and Kelcey, an engineering firm hired by MnDOT to do the EIS. They had two choices for the draft EIS: either treat all the possible routes equally or name a "measurably better" route as the "preferred alternative," continued Parker.

To be "measurably better," the route must either have fewer impacts, provide better service, etc. When the consulting engineers and MnDOT engineers talked with the Federal Highway Administration in early October, they decided that they did not have a route that was "measurably better" and would not name a "preferred alternative" in the draft EIS. If they had tried to chose one, the Federal Highway Administra-tion might have balked at the document, said Parker. "All the alternatives are still in. All the analysis of these routes are in there," he said of the draft EIS.

Significant impacts considered in the EIS include: to bicycle trails, to pedestrians, to farmland, to floodplain, to groundwater, and to wetlands. The document will also consider noise pollution, traffic service, cost, and the number of required relocations. Based on a synopsis of these impacts (shown in a chart on page 3), MnDOT, the consulting engineers, and the Federal Highway Administration agreed that a "preferred alternative" was not "measurably better" and should not be named in the draft EIS.

Parker said the draft EIS has to be thorough because someone in the Federal Highway Administration, from an office in Chicago, without any specific knowledge of Paynes-ville, is going to judge the document. "You want to be sure you show them alternatives, even if they don't work. You have to show them that they've been investigated," said Parker.

Flaten added that, to the Federal Highway Administration, the draft EIS is still early in the process. Originally, MnDOT and Edwards and Kelcey had planned to have the draft EIS done two years ago. Now, instead, they are in the final steps before releasing the document.

Currently, Edwards and Kelcey are waiting for comments from the Federal Highway Administration on the draft EIS. The consulting engineers and MnDOT staff will meet with the Federal Highway Administration in mid-November to discuss those comments, which will then be addressed in the document.

Then the document should be sent to the Corps of Engineers before the end of November. The corps has a month to comment on the draft EIS. When those comments come back in late December, Edwards and Kelcey will incorporate them into the document, and then it should be ready to publish in early January 2005.

The draft EIS will be published in the Federal Register and in the EQB Monitor in Minnesota. Hard copies will be available at Paynesville City Hall and at the Paynesville Public Library, and Edwards and Kelcey said last week that they would post the document on the Internet.

Once the draft EIS is published officially, an official 45-day comment period starts. About a third of the way into that comment period, in mid-January, another open house and public hearing will be held. Maps will be available, and residents should be able to come and ask questions about the routes and the project with the engineers during the open house.

Then, during the public hearing, official comments will be taken. Residents who do not wish to speak in public will also be able to give verbal comments to a court reporter on a one-on-one basis at the public hearing. And residents will be able to comment in writing and will have another month to send written comments. Typically, though, they get 80 percent of comments verbally at the public hearing, said Flaten.

Once the official comment period closes in February 2005, the comments will be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration, and the consulting engineers expect to meet with MnDOT and the Federal Highway Administration in February or March to choose the "preferred alternative" based on the draft EIS and the comments to it.

Mike Flanders, who represents Roseville Township on the task force, asked about the constitutional designation that Highway 23 must touch the city limits of Paynesville and whether municipal consent would be granted by the city if the far west bypass were chosen, since that route does not touch the city limits. Flaten said they had discussed this with the Federal Highway Administration, and the far west bypass, though facing a major hurdle with city opposition, is "still not physically impossible," said Parker.

The final EIS usually takes another 18 months after the draft EIS. It also has a 30-day comment period but does not require a public hearing. The future route will be final when a record of decision is recorded at the end of the final EIS.

"Everybody is anxiously waiting," said task force member Jeff Bertram to Flaten and Parker at last week's meeting.

In other Highway 23 notes:

*the task force noted that the planned new store for Paynesville SuperValu, on a five-acre lot south of Alco, will not interfere with the west bypass route;

*the task force was told by Flaten that $5 million in federal funding was still expected, but that the federal transportation bill still has not passed; maybe it will in January;

*the task force was told by Mayor Jeff Thompson that Region 7W - a district planning for MnDOT including Benton, Sherburne, Stearns, and Wright counties - has put making Highway 23 into a four-lane highway from Paynesville to Richmond among its eight regional priorities.

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