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Paynesville Press - December 14, 2005

MnDOT plan expected at council tonight

By Michael Jacobson

MnDOT representatives are expected to bring back a plan for proposed Highway 23 improvements in Paynesville to the city council tonight (Wednesday, Dec. 14).

MnDOT is expected to submit a plan of proposed improvements this month for the city to consider giving its municipal consent. The city council will need to hold a public hearing, likely in January, before acting on the MnDOT submission.

If, and how, the MnDOT proposal could change from previously will be seen at this week's meeting.

So far this fall, MnDOT officials have maintained that they compromised with city wishes in choosing the west route as "the preferred alternative" and have shown little willingness to compromise on speed or access to the new highway, as requested by local business interests and then backed by the council.

In November, the city council told MnDOT that a full access - either an interchange or intersection on the west end of town (by the airport, school, and business district) - was a priority for the city and that the current limited access in MnDOT's plan was inadequate. MnDOT officials have proposed a half-diamond interchange by the airport that would allow only westbound traffic to enter Highway 23 and allow only eastbound traffic to exit Highway 23.

Furthermore, the council unanimously passed a resolution and sent it to the MnDOT office in Willmar that asked for Highway 23 to be recategorized from 2A to 2B in the city limits. When the west route was chosen, this classification was automatically changed for the new highway to 2A (rural bypass), despite the fact that this route still goes through the city.

Under MnDOT guidelines, the 2A classification calls for speeds of 55-65 mph with accesses limited to every mile minimum. The 2B classification (urban/urbanizing, "generally applied to areas within municipal boundaries") calls for speeds of 40-55 mph and allows accesses every half mile.

When asked about better access from Highway 23 to the west end of Paynesville, MnDOT officials have frequently cited these guidelines, meaning the 2A classification, for their reasoning as to why a full access is not possible by the airport. After meeting with the city council in November, MnDOT officials from Willmar said they would examine this again but made no promises about a full access.

Putting an interchange on the west end is complicated in part due to the clear zone for the airport. MnDOT officials in Willmar also said that they have made a district decision not to have any stoplights in Paynesville on the new Highway 23 and are reluctant to have an at-grade intersection - which would provide full access - because traffic would warrant a stoplight.

A priority for the MnDOT office in Willmar is maintaining its target speed of 55 mph on Highway 23 from Willmar to St. Cloud. This section of Highway 23 - a medium priority interregional corridor - is measured from the Highway 23/71 split by Willmar to Highway 15 in St. Cloud. The target speed of 55 mph means MnDOT wants drivers to be able to drive that segment - roughly 55 miles long - in one hour.

Right now, MnDOT has determined that one additional stop condition (i.e. stoplight) can be added on this section of Highway 23, since a new stoplight was just added by Richmond. MnDOT officials in Willmar are opposed to having a stoplight on Highway 23 in Paynes-ville, once it is improved.

MnDOT officials in Willmar did say in November that renaming the existing Highway 23 as Business 23 should be possible, even if the road is turned back to the county. They also said they would look at adding an exit ramp for eastbound traffic where new Highway 23 and Business 23 would split by the Kandiyohi-Stearns border.

Right now, MnDOT has $9 million in federal funds for this project, which is currently estimated at $44 million for the rural expressway it has proposed. MnDOT would need to secure more federal funding - and could use the city's support - to make this project possible in the near future. (The federal funds must be used within six years, and this project is tentatively scheduled for 2009.)

Without additional federal funding, this project is not budgeted by MnDOT until 2015-2023. (Upgrading the stretches of Highway 23 from Paynesville to New London and from Paynesville to Richmond are currently on MnDOT's long-range plan (2024-2030).

The Paynesville City Council will meet on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at 6 p.m. at city hall. Representatives from the MnDOT office in Willmar are expected to attend and discuss their proposal for Highway 23 improvements to be submitted to the city for consideration of municipal consent. text

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