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Paynesville Press - November 9, 2005

Business backers spar with MnDOT over speed, access to proposed Highway 23

By Michael Jacobson

A group of business people proposed alterations to MnDOT's plans for a new Highway 23 in Paynesville, providing greater access to the city and lower speeds on the new highway route. But MnDOT, which plans to seek municipal consent from the city of Paynesville for its construction plans in the near future, apparently has no interest in any changes.

Stan Yarmon, selected to represent the Paynesville business group, suggested several changes to the west route, which was chosen by MnDOT as the "preferred alternative" for Highway 23 this fall. Yarmon, who owns Yarmon Ford, suggested four stoplights on Highway 23 at at-grade intersections at Roseville Road, at Cemetery Road, at Highway 55, and at Lake Avenue. The speed limit should be closer to 35 mph in the sections of the new highway in the city, rather than 65 mph, or motorists will "blink and miss Paynesville," he said.

Yarmon also said the current Highway 23 should become Business 23, and drivers should have to turn the wheel, or choose, to take the bypass, not to have to choose to take Business 23.

Yarmon received applause a couple times from the audience, which numbered 50 people, including maybe 20 business owners/managers at Paynesville City Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 2.

The meeting was called by the Paynesville City Council to continue discussing Highway 23. MnDOT is planning to submit its plan for Highway 23 and seek municipal consent from the city starting in December, according to MnDOT project manager Lowell Flaten.

"If we were to implement all the things you are proposing, it would take people longer to take the bypass than to go through town," responded Flaten. If MnDOT is going to invest millions of dollars in a project, it wants travel-time efficiency.

When Yarmon asked if at least some changes could be made to improve access to Paynesville and lower the speed of the proposed highway in Paynesville, Flaten said, "It's not going to happen."

MnDOT, said Flaten, won't make a highway "less efficient than it can be." The new highway would have a 65-mph design, he said.

What would people think if the Rockville bypass had four stoplights and a 35-mph speed limit, he asked.

Yarmon, later in the one-hour and 40-minute meeting, again asked Flaten if the business group and MnDOT could "meet in the middle."

"I guess your main objective is to get people from Point A to Point B as quick as you can, and as efficiently as you can. We understand that," said Yarmon. But if Highway 23 has stoplights and 35- to 45-mph speeds in Cold Spring and Spicer, then why not in Paynesville, too, he asked.

Audience members, including Press co-publisher Lynne Jacobson, asked why stoplights were out of the question for Paynesville since, with the addition of a light in Richmond, Highway 23 would have five lights from Willmar to St. Cloud. (Two in Spicer, two in Cold Spring, and a new light in Richmond.) If five already exist on this interregional corridor, why can't there be two more in Paynesville.

Flaten maintained at the meeting that stoplights were not an option for Paynesville. Highway 23, he noted, is an interregional corridor from the southwest part of the state to the northeast part of the state. This importance of Highway 23 is why MnDOT had focused on this project and why funds would be allocated for improvements.

At the meeting, Flaten quoted a new cost figure of $44 million for the Highway 23 project in Paynesville. Actually, according to figures compiled by MnDOT, the proposed plan for Highway 23 is estimated to cost $49.25 million. Chart of Highway 23 options

Spending $44 million, said Dick Johnson of Vern Johnson Motors, is a lot to save Willmar people a few minutes on their drive to St. Cloud. "We pay federal taxes, too," he said about the proposed cost.

While Flaten resisted any compromises over greater access and lower speeds on the new highway, this study by MnDOT did exactly that. In September, MnDOT looked at the Highway 23 project and estimated costs based on how much was built. Eliminating interchanges, for instance, and using at-grade intersections saves money. These scenarios also include only building two lanes for the bypass, not four, and not building the entire bypass, at least not right away.

Flaten, at the meeting, said MnDOT is close to an agreement for municipal consent over their chosen proposal. This is Scenario #3A: a full-length four-lane bypass with an at-grade intersection (no stoplight) at Roseville Road, a bridge over Cemetery Road (with an on-ramp going west and an exit ramp coming east, but no on-ramp going east and no exit ramp going west), an interchange at Highway 55, an at-grade intersection at Lake Avenue, and a bridge for Co. Rd. 33. MnDOT will buy property for interchanges at Lake Avenue and Roseville Road even if it only builds at-grade intersections right away, said Flaten.

"We think we're pretty close," said Flaten about municipal consent. Just the final details are left, he said.

"We think we're close to a final project, but we're open to improvements," he added later.

"We think it serves Paynesville very well," said Flaten. "It serves Paynesville to the degree a bypass can serve Paynesville," he added about the proposed Highway 23, citing five accesses to Paynesville.

Yarmon argued that number. Coming east, motorists would have only four opportunities to exist to Paynesville - at Roseville Road, by the airport, at Highway 55, and at Lake Avenue - not five. Going west, motorists would only have three chances to exit into Paynesville - at the split east of town, at Lake Avenue, and at Highway 55 - not five.

Highway 23, said retired businessman Harold Easterday, has been a lifeline to businesses in Paynesville, and we owe it to them to have good access and lower speeds on Highway 23 in Paynesville.

Since MnDOT's design is for a divided four-lane bypass of Highway 23 thru Paynesville, Flaten said, drivers will naturally speed up when they reach the four-lane road. "It's just the way people drive."

Flaten said MnDOT worked hard with the community in Spicer, intended to do the same thing in Paynesville.

Yarmon urged the council not to give municipal consent if MnDOT's proposal remains a 65-mph highway thru Paynesville.

In July 2003, at a Highway 23 Task Force meeting, the process of municipal consent was described as give and take between MnDOT and the city. Flaten, when pressed about how MnDOT could compromise on Highway 23 in a follow-up interview on Monday, said that MnDOT had used city input in selecting the west route. Copy of City Council letter to MnDOT. The city council, in recommending the west alternative in July 2003, judged that it would "better serve the city's existing commercial, retail, and service businesses, as well as our industry."

In light of this backing of the west route by the council, a petition from 73 business people this summer, citing their concerns about the loss of business if traffic is diverted on a new highway, supported that choice and asked for input on the final design, including slower speeds; stoplight placement; directing traffic through town via a Business 23; streetlights; and landscaping.

What would happen if the city did not give its municipal consent, asked Dave Lange of H&L Express.

MnDOT could drop the project, said Flaten, or appeal (which is more likely). The appeals process involves mediation before a three-member panel.

Support for the business group's concerns with the city council were hard to gauge at the meeting.

Council member Jeff Bertram said he was pro-business and urged MnDOT to continue to use the local Highway 23 Task Force to consult with the community before seeking municipal consent.

Since the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Highway 23 suffered from so many delays, Bertram suggested there is no reason to rush for municipal consent now. "If you can come up with a design from now to December that I can vote for, it'd be a miracle," he said. "Let's take our time and do it right because it's going to last forever."

Township resident Ray Lien, whose property is affected by the new route for Highway 23, urged a quicker resolution since property owners have been waiting so long for a decision about Highway 23.

Easterday pressed the council, asking "Are you with us?"

Bertram said he supports businesses. He doesn't want to delay the process unnecessarily, he added, in reference to Lien's time concern, but he urged the business group to stay active. "Let's make this route the best we can," he said.

The only other council member who was vocal at the meeting was Mayor Jeff Thompson, who said he would have to consider the whole community. Thompson, who praised MnDOT as a "good partner," at the start of the meeting, said he would listen to all concerns. "To ask if I am with you is not a fair question," Thompson told Easterday. "I'm with everybody."

Other questions at the meeting included:

*Jacobson asking why the city was being asked to give its municipal consent (in December) before the Final Environmental Impact Statement (by March at the earliest, according to Flaten).

*Tiff Wolfe of Wolfe Photography asking about the timeline and then, upon learning that MnDOT is planning to start construction in 2009, asking why MnDOT is doing this project just in Paynesville rather than making Highway 23 four lanes from Richmond to New London all together.

Flaten said that Highway 23 in Paynesville had been identified as a bottleneck to traffic. Expanding the rural segments - from Richmond to Paynesville and from Paynesville to New London - would not provide as much time savings. These segments, though, have now been scheduled by MnDOT for improvement, though still years away.

*Tim Miller of Lake Country Paint and Hardware wondered about the future access to downtown Paynesville from Lake Avenue.

Improving Lake Avenue is a city issue, said Flaten. Thompson said the city is looking at improvements to the connection from downtown to the new highway. In an "ideal" world, he said, Washburne would go straight to the new highway. (Of course, at present, extending Washburne Avenue would hit the Central Minnesota Federal Credit Union.)

*Robert McDaniel of the Blessing Well asked about extending Lake Avenue over the railroad and making it a thru-street all the way to Lake Koronis, which again was a city, not MnDOT, concern.

(Editor's Note: I have stated my opinion that the present design of the west alternative is too fast. See my column at: Minute with Mike: Real battle on Highway 23 just beginning (9.28.05).)

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