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Paynesville Press - November 30, 2005

City council gives messages to MnDOT

By Michael Jacobson

Two days after sending MnDOT a verbal message about their desires for better access for the proposed design of Highway 23 last week, the Paynesville City Council sent a written message as well.

On Monday, Nov. 21, while meeting with three MnDOT officials in a special meeting, council member Jeff Bertram bluntly told them that council approval of the proposed plan for Highway 23 wasn't happening without significant changes.

The council, which asked the three MnDOT engineers and planners to bring a revised plan back to the city in December, will not be satisfied with minor pacifications and tweaks, said Bertram. The current plan would not get one vote of approval from the council, he added.

Then, on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at their regular meeting, the council discussed Highway 23 again and approved a resolution to send to MnDOT, first to project manager Lowell Flaten in Willmar. The resolution (see shaded box) - which council members all agreed to and discussed mostly in light of how to use it to the right affect - asks for MnDOT to reclassify the proposed Highway 23 from 2A (rural bypass) to 2B (urban/urbanizing) within the city limits and to design a full intersection or interchange in the area of the airport (on the west end).

"I feel if we don't get the category changed, we can't get much done," said Mayor Jeff Thompson in proposing the resolution. He noted that the council had been told two days before that getting the category changed could be done at the state level, and he said that a resolution would be the strongest message the city could send to MnDOT.

The council did not change a word of the resolution but did discuss if it was the best way to proceed. They discussed whether to send it directly to MnDOT's central office or to the Willmar office before deciding to start at the local level with the engineers and planners working directly on this project.

The resolution by a unified council would reinforce the verbal message to MnDOT from two days earlier, said Bertram, who added that he didn't think MnDOT understood that they did not have the votes for municipal consent until he told them on Monday, Nov. 21.

The council then passed the resolution unanimously, while noting that they still had other concerns, like having a Business 23 and upgrading Lake Avenue.

Prior to their meeting with MnDOT on Monday, Nov. 21, the council met in a special session, starting at 5 p.m., to discuss their position on Highway 23. The council made a list of concerns, including: having a full interchange/intersection by the airport (at Cemetery Road), upgrading Lake Avenue, changing the categorization of Highway 23 in the city from 2A to 2B, avoiding mediation, keeping the project on schedule, improving the west separation, keeping the current highway route as Business 23, and lowering speed limits.

Each council member, along with city administrator Steve Helget, rated his or her top five concerns. Having a full interchange or intersection on the west end made the top two on everybody's top five list. Using the Business 23 designation also was unanimously listed by the council members. Upgrading Lake Avenue, keeping the project on schedule, and avoiding mediation also scored high.

Stan Yarmon, on behalf of the business group he represents, gave the city a list of four concerns that were included on the initial list (before the council voted): using the Business 23 designation (with adequate signs in place when the road opens); having a speed limit of 45 mph within the city limits (roughly from a half mile east of Lake Avenue and a half mile west of Cemetery Road); a full access at Cemetery Road; and stoplights at the intersections at both Lake Avenue and Cemetery Road.

"Thank you for listening to us because it sounds like we've got a lot of the same concerns," Yarmon told the council.

After voting, and deciding that the interchange/intersection by the airport (on the west end) was their top priority, the council discussed briefly how to best approach that with the MnDOT contingent.

Bertram correctly predicted that the first thing MnDOT would say is that it is too close to the proposed interchange with Highway 55.

So, either it needs to be as far away as possible or the classification needs to change, said Thompson, since that would reduce the required spacing between intersections to a half mile. The city needs to ask MnDOT, "Can it be done?" said Thompson.

Later, Thompson added that the definition of category 2B - urban/ urbanizing (between municipal boundaries) - sounded more like the west route than 2A (rural expressway). (Changing the classification would also lower the target speed from 55-65 mph to 45-55 mph.)

The council had not really finished their discussion at 5:40 p.m. when the MnDOT officials arrived, cutting short the council's planning of their strategy.

Top Concern: West Access
Starting at 6 p.m., the council met for 90 minutes with three representatives of MnDOT District 8 in Willmar on Monday, Nov. 21. Representing MnDOT were: Flaten, preliminary design engineer; Patrick Weidemann, district planning director; and Keith Voss, programming and project development engineer. Ten spectators, including local legislators Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) and Rep. Larry Hosch (DFL-St. Joseph), also attended the meeting.

Thompson introduced the city's purpose - to alter the design while keeping the process moving forward - and stated its #1 concern...a full interchange/intersection by the airport (on Cemetery Road or thereabouts).

The current design has an on-ramp only for westbound traffic and an off-ramp only for eastbound traffic. That is only traffic coming from New London could exit Highway 23 there, and only traffic heading to New London could enter Highway 23 there. Traffic from the east (Richmond) could neither exit at the west end or get back on there.

The city, explained Thompson, wants "people to get into the community as easily as possible."

Voss said MnDOT tried to get access as close as it could to town and the half-diamond interchange came about because it's "too close for (another) full access." (According to the 2A guidelines, a mile spacing is needed between interchanges/intersections, while under 2B only a half mile is needed.) MnDOT, said Weidemann, must balance local access with travelers using the highway. The half access is "as good as we could get as far as a compromise."

Bertram started by noting where the city and MnDOT agree: that a project is needed and the west is the best route but then stressed the need to compromise: "We agree that it's not going to be totally our way. The quicker you guys understand that it's not going to be entirely your way, the quicker we can compromise."

Council member Dennis Zimmerman then explained the city's position on how the half access by the airport is inadequate. If a motorist going west on Highway 23 would miss the exit at Highway 55 and then see the businesses on the west end, "it's already too late (to turn)," he said. The next exit, as currently designed, is at Roseville Road, two miles out of town. "We want to make sure if you can see it, you can get to it," Zimmerman said.

MnDOT responded by saying that signs could direct traffic to the west end, but Zimmerman responded that the reality is drivers won't do it.

Weidemann said that they could not give a final answer and would have to take this issue back to the office in Willmar.

At several points later in the discussion, the topic turned back to the access on the west end with the city pressing for the need its sees for a full access and MnDOT saying they could look at it again but making no promises.

The half-diamond interchange is "the best we've come up with," said Weidemann, though adding that they would take another look.

The west end, said Thompson, is "prime commercial and retail growth area" for Paynesville.

The west alternative was automatically reclassified as 2A, according to standard MnDOT practice.

Flaten said that these guidelines were distributed to the local task force at a meeting on March 13, 2003.

Highway 23 in Paynesville is now classified as 2B and 2C (urban core), according to MnDOT.

Fischbach wondered why Highway 23 was reclassified when the route still is in town. To which, Voss replied: "It's on new alignment, so we don't consider this in town." Later, Weidemann added, that MnDOT considers the west route a bypass because it bypasses the current alignment of the highway.

Hosch asked if the guidelines are for ideal situations, suggesting that they could be bent since "we don't live in ideal world."

Voss said that ideal spacing between interchanges is three or four miles; one mile is minimal.

Fischbach noted that other places in the state have closer spacings, and Voss responded that they don't want to repeat mistakes.

Then, Weidemann explained that the district office does not have the authority to violate these spacing guidelines, which prompted Bertram to ask who does. The commissioner? Approval would be needed from the state office, but not from the commissioner, Weidemann said. The classification change from 2A to 2B should be pursued, said Yarmon: "If that's just with a stroke of a pen by someone, let's get it done."

The MnDOT officials also explained how the zoning for the airport, included the clear zone regulating height, complicated moving an interchange on the west end any further in that direction.

At the end of the meeting township resident Dick Michaelis asked the location of the airport concerning Highway 23, and Flaten said that MnDOT knew the airport was a controversial subject when they started this project and had recognized its existence and agreed "not to go there."

Michaelis asked if it would be easier for an interchange on west end without the airport, and Weidemann said yes.

MnDOT's Position
MnDOT, said Weidemann, feels like they have negotiated throughout this process, citing the following features in their current plan: the access at Lake Avenue, the bridge for Co. Rd. 33, and the partial access (half-diamond interchange) on the west end "We've put a lot of elements in. We're putting forward what we think is a good plan," he said.

"From the state's perspective, we've tried to meet as much as we can," he added.

MnDOT's initial plan for the west route, said Weidemann, only had three accesses to Paynesville.

MnDOT is charged with representing all taxpayers since the state is making an investment in this project, and the 2A classification is a way for the public to get a return on that investment, he said.

To explain the scope of the project, Weidemann noted that District 8's yearly construction budget is only $30 million while this project ($46 million) represents a year and a half of normal spending.

Of that $46 million, including $12.5 million for expected right-of-way purchases, MnDOT only has $9 million so far. To get the rest, they will be asking the area transportation partnership for southwestern Minnesota, which includes MnDOT District 8 (the Willmar office) but not Paynesville, for more federal funds, said Weidemann. That board will have lots of resistance to spending money in Stearns County, said Weidemann, so MnDOT will have to show how this project benefits the whole of southwest Minnesota.

In order to get more funding for the project, "We are going to need help to sell this project," said Weidemann.

Bertram then noted that this is why MnDOT should compromise with the city, which could then work with them to get the rest of the funding. "The common goal is you want to do this, and we want to do it," Bertram said.

Municipal Consent
"Anything that gets us closer to municipal consent is a good thing," said Weidemann.

Two concerns of the city received easy answers from MnDOT: renaming the current highway alignment as Business 23 and making an exit for eastbound traffic where Highway 23 and Business 23 would split west of town, a prime concern for council member Tom Lindquist.

Business 23, according to MnDOT, is fine, even if the road is turned back to the county or even the township. The positive is the familiar name, and the only downside is the possible confusion with having two 23s (Highway 23 and Business 23), said Weidemann, citing some confusion for people seeking highway addresses in Willmar.

Lindquist wanted an easy exit for traffic coming from New London and Willmar so, at the split west of town, they could choose to take either Highway 23 or Business 23.

MnDOT will bring a revised plan to the first council meeting in December (on Wednesday, Dec. 14) and then come again to the council meeting again later in December (on Wednesday, Dec. 28). At some point, the city council will need to hold a public hearing about the plan for Highway 23 while considering municipal consent, though the city would like to hold this hearing in January, not December.

Once the city gives municipal consent, is all input done, asked Thompson, or will MnDOT still be flexible? Giving municipal consent is a big step, responded Voss. "You should probably consider this your last, best chance to affect change."

Zimmerman asked where there is the room to compromise, especially about the full access by the airport. In good negotiation, he noted, should always start with "no."

"We're willing to compromise," added Bertram.

"Generally, we think we've gone as far as we can," said Weidemann. MnDOT will eventually submit a plan for Highway 23 that the city council will have to consider and either approve or reject. If the city rejects it, then it's up to MnDOT to respond by either going to mediation, altering their plan, or dropping the project, said Weidemann.

This Paynesville project is scheduled by MnDOT for 2015-2023, without federal earmarks, Weidemann added. If dropped for the time being, MnDOT could use the federal money ($9 million) to buy right-of-way now and then wait to pursue.

MnDOT did not offer any compromises on traffic signals, which Weidemann called nonnegotiable and lowering speeds in the city limits for safety reasons, which Voss said was unlikely.

Fischbach asked why MnDOT would not consider stoplights for Paynesville, and Weidemann said that MnDOT was making a 30- to 40-year investment in Highway 23 and needed to maintain mobility on the Willmar to St. Cloud corridor in return.

Fischbach also asked if this was following a MnDOT guideline, and Weidemann said it was a district decision.

Bertram said the council was willing to compromise on stoplights.

Lake Avenue
The city and MnDOT officials also discussed upgrading Lake Avenue, without reaching a conclusion.

The city wants help from MnDOT for upgrading this road, which was recently annexed to the city but is only a five-ton road now. The city expects Lake Avenue to be a main entry to downtown and to handle heavy truck traffic to the Industrial Park. Bertram, a former legislator, said MnDOT has responsibility when they put more traffic on a local road. He said the "natural touchdown" should be the south side of the Crow River.

First, MnDOT cited their cost participation formulas. Then Voss asked who wanted the road, which sparked some debate.

"It begs the question: Is it our problem or yours?" said Voss.

MnDOT said the city had chosen Lake Avenue as an access, but the city representatives responded by saying they had merely asked for five accesses to town and that Lake Avenue was a logical spot.

A big issue on Lake Avenue is the bridge over the Crow River, which is likely to need to be replaced to handle heavy traffic. Flaten said their central office must approve the use of funds, too, and that the office would be reluctant to use trunk highway funds for a local bridge.

"There's no way we'll be able to pay for a new bridge. That's just not going to happen," said Weidemann. "It's actually against the state constitution."

"If you can't afford it, there's no way we can afford it," responded Bertram.

"We understand your concerns," said Weidemann, about having a full access on the west end, towards the end of the meeting. "It might not be possible."

That's when Bertram told him and the other MnDOT officials that it would be a mistake to come back in December without real compromises. The city is willing to compromise; is MnDOT, he asked.

Right now, MnDOT's plan would not get any votes, he said. If not satisfied, the city, could get legislators involved, go to state office, etc.

MnDOT left with a list of four items to reexamine: full access on the west end, Business 23, Lake Avenue upgrade, and an exit on the west end towards Paynesville.

"We want to be sure we do it right," said Thompson on the importance of Highway 23, "because we are going to have to live with it for a long time."

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