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Paynesville Press - November 16, 2005

MnDOT's goal: 55 mph from Willmar to St. Cloud

By Michael Jacobson

The driving force behind MnDOT's plan for Highway 23 is speed. Not just greater speed through Paynesville, but MnDOT's goal is meeting its speed targets for the Willmar to St. Cloud corridor.

As a medium-priority interregional corridor, Highway 23 is divided into segments by MnDOT to analyze and maintain travel times. The segment that includes Paynesville runs from the Highway 23/71 split just east of Willmar to Highway 15 in St. Cloud.

The only speed listed in the Draft EIS for the Highway 23 project in Paynesville is a 55 mph target speed, which is MnDOT's goal for medium-priority interregional corridor. This, however, is not defined as a target speed for the Paynesville segment; it is the target speed for the entire segement (54 miles) from Willmar to St. Cloud.

In other words, MnDOT wants motorists to average 55 mph while driving from Willmar to St. Cloud. This means making that trip in just under one hour.

MnDOT uses a five-page formula to compute time of travel, but the calculation starts by driving the route during peak traffic and timing the trip. More trips are needed for larger ranges of times and to lower the permitted amount of error. The formula includes penalties for congestion and for future signal risk.

Future travel time projections are "theoretical," based on forecasted volumes and expected conditions, said Pat Weidemann, director of planning for MnDOT's office in Willmar, which is pursuing the Paynesville project.

The current Highway 23 fails as a medium-priority interregional corridor sometime between 2015 and 2023, according to MnDOT's projections, said project manager Lowell Flaten.

This is why MnDOT wants to make a $44 million investment in the Paynesville area and why they want it to last for 30 to 40 years, said Weidemann. MnDOT has proposed a 65-mph, four-lane Highway 23 for Paynesville. This would be free-flowing with interchanges and no stops, added Weidemann.

A mock drive along this entire corridor, from Willmar to St. Cloud, by the Press, indicated that the thru-town Highway 23 in Paynesville is the slowest stretch, slower even than Waite Park, which has five stoplights, though the sample was not done during the peak time and time lost to stoplights in Waite Park was minimized. (Driving from Willmar to St. Cloud)

When the west alternative was selected, in addition to the route, two key factors changed. First, Highway 23 in Paynesville was lengthened by approximately one mile, further increasing MnDOT's need for speed.

Second, to accomplish this fact, MnDOT increased the classification of Highway 23, from 2B (urban/ urbanizing) to 2A (rural/bypass). This classification change, which was not disclosed by MnDOT until the Press asked specific questions about this classification system, increases the speed and decreases the amount of access allowed to the highway. In 2A, for instance, the typical posted speed, according to MnDOT guidelines is 55-65 mph, while in 2B the typical posted speed is 40-55 mph. In 2A, full-movement intersections must be at one-mile spacings, while in 2B full intersections need half-mile intervals.

Currently, the thru-town route of Highway 23 in Paynesville is 2B, as is the city of Spicer, the city of Richmond, and the city of Cold Spring. Waite Park/St. Cloud is 2C, which is defined as urban core, said Weidemann.

When a new alignment was chosen for Highway 23 in Paynesville (the west alignment alternative), the classification was automatically changed to 2A, said Flaten. Spicer, Richmond, and Cold Spring all stayed at 2B because they chose the existing alignment.

This fall, in September, prior to the announcement of the west route as the "preferred alternative" for Highway 23 in Paynesville, MnDOT ran nine scenarios for Highway 23 in Paynesville. (These also use a number and letter for naming but are different from the classifications discussed above.)

The nine scenarios are contained in the following eight maps (pdf format): Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Scenario 3a Scenario 3b Scenario 4 Scenario 5 Scenario 36 Scenario 7

In running these scenarios, MnDOT started with the full build - interchanges at every intersection - and went back from there, said Weidemann. The cost estimates for these scenarios range from $49 million for the full build to $26 million for a two-lane bypass.

The primary purpose of these scenarios was to determine what could be built at what price. For instance, an interchange at Lake Avenue costs $2.05 million to build, while an at-grade intersection costs only $86,000.

First, MnDOT eliminated this interchange at Lake Avenue - and replaced it with an at-grade intersection - and then MnDOT eliminated the interchange at Roseville Road - and replaced it with an at-grade intersection, saving $2.75 million. This is scenario #3A. With nearly $5 million in savings by not building these two interchanges, this plan has an estimated cost of $44 million, $5 million less than the full build of $49 million.

All of the scenarios include an overpass over Highway 55, which is needed because the new highway would also need to go over the railroad tracks, said Flaten. This interchange would cost $3.39 million. And all of the scenarios include a bridge for Co. Rd. 33 - at a cost of $1.98 million - to allow thru-traffic to the north of Paynesville via an uninterrupted road. Such a connection was a point of concern voiced by north of town residents during the comment period on the Draft EIS and by first responders who need a fast way to north of town in emergencies.

(In addition to the construction costs, MnDOT estimates it needs $12.5 million for right-of-way purchases. MnDOT would start by buying property needed for immediate build and would stretch that money as far as could go, according to Weidemann.)

In choosing #3A - which was done without consulting the city, according to Flaten - MnDOT is close to building a 2A-F highway through Paynesville. The classification 2A-F means full-grade separated; the only section from Willmar to St. Cloud currently using this classification is at the junction of Highway 23 and Interstate 94, said Weidemann.

When asked about speed, both Flaten and Weidemann point out that speed limits are actually chosen later, after the speed of actual traffic is measured. But when asked specifically whether the type of highway built would affect the speed at which motorists drive, Flaten admitted that it certainly did.

Flaten also has said that MnDOT's accesses for Paynesville are "aggressive" but does not include the explanation that MnDOT has already increased speed and limited access by changing the classification to 2A. Under 2A guidelines, the accesses may be "aggressive," but 2B guidelines, such as in Cold Spring, Spicer, and Richmond, would allow greater access yet.

While signals are discouraged on all medium-priority interregional corridors, whether classified as 2A or 2B, MnDOT has a further reason to hold a hard line in Paynesville. (Flaten, at an informational meeting in Paynesville on Wednesday, Nov. 2, indicated the MnDOT would oppose any stoplights in Paynesville.)

In order to maintain the target speed on Highway 23 in this Willmar to St. Cloud stretch, MnDOT has determined that there can only be 11 stop conditions (stoplights or other stops) total. Currently, there are two stoplights in Spicer, the four-way stop in Paynesville, two stoplights in Cold Spring, and five stoplights in Waite Park/St. Cloud (and a sixth at the intersection with Highway 15).

If the Paynesville project were built with free-flowing traffic (no stops or stoplights), it would reduce the number in the entire Willmar to St. Cloud corridor to nine. Another stoplight is being installed, which would be ten again. MnDOT, according to Weidemann, would prefer to not use all these stops and keep one for future traffic needs. While Weidemann said he does not believe that Highway 23 in St. Cloud would need any more stoplights, other growth areas may need one.

Members of the Paynesville City Council during their discussion of Highway 23 at their council meeting stated their belief that Lake Avenue will be a main access to Paynesville, especially to the downtown and the Industrial Park. Council members indicated that they consider this to be a prime location for a stoplight in Paynesville.

However, MnDOT thinks that if the city's growth continues to the west, Roseville Road might have a greater signal risk than Lake Avenue. (This is reflected in their scenarios, as the interchange at Lake Avenue is the first thing MnDOT drops; the interchange at Roseville Road is next.)

An at-grade intersection at Cemetery Road, which city administrator Steve Helget asked MnDOT to consider last week, was rejected by MnDOT, the city was told. Instead of an $86,000 at-grade intersection at Cemetery Road on the west end of Paynesville, MnDOT instead wants to build a half interchange (with an on-ramp only for west-bound traffic and an exit only for east-bound traffic) for $2.17 million.

MnDOT cites its "guidelines" for this interchange but bases this decision on the reclassification of Highway 23 as 2A. Under the guidelines for 2B, full intersection spacings need only be a half mile apart, not a full mile, which would allow an at-grade intersection at Cemetery Road. MnDOT did include scenarios this fall with an at-grade intersection at Cemetery Road (#6 and #7). According to their scenarios, MnDOT would rather shorten the bypass than have an at-grade intersection at Cemetery Road. The only cost-saving measure that MnDOT would be more reluctant to go to, besides an at-grade intersection at Cemetery Road, is keeping Highway 23 as a two-lane road totally, according to its scenarios.

MnDOT's reason is not the local access that an at-grade intersection at Cemetery Road would provide for the west end of Paynesville. MnDOT knows that an at-grade intersection in this area would be popular, so popular that it would merit a stoplight. "If I put that at-grade," said Weidemann, "I'd have a signal there in ten years."

MnDOT still needs to acquire substantial funding for this project. In federal funding so far, MnDOT has $9 million and will use $3 million of that for right-of-way purchases and $6 million for construction. Another $9 million for full right-of-way purchase would be needed (though all the right-of-way purchases do not need to be done initially, said Weidemann).

The total construction cost for scenario #3A is $32 million. Less $6 million in federal funds already, this leaves $26 million to get. MnDOT will ask the Area Transportation Partnership for $21 million (the Area Transportation Partnership pays up to 80 percent of construction), said Weidemann, and will find the remaining funds in its own budget. Should less than the full funding be found, MnDOT would have to consider scaling back the project, to a scenario to build less than #3A.

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