Highway 23 survey shows future problems

This article submitted by Linda Stelling on 12/17/96.

SRF Consulting Group gave Highway 23 in the Paynesville and Spicer area failing grades by the year 2020. SRF was hired by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to explore and research the feasibility of developing Highway 23 into a four-lane highway from Highway 71, near Willmar, to Richmond.

Charlene Zimmer and Dave Montebello of SRF Consulting presented their needs assessment survey findings to the Highway 23 Steering Committee last week. The study looked at traffic flow today and calculated what it would be like by the year 2020. They gave passing and failing grades to various segments of the Highway 23 route. The grades took into consideration passing areas, number of access points which cause traffic delays, hazardous curves, narrow shoulders, and more.

Areas receiving the lowest grades (unacceptable levels by the year 2020) were from Highway 71 to Spicer and County State Aid Highway 32; and from Highway 55 at Paynesville through town to Highway 124; and the intersection of County Roads 43 and12 located about two miles west of Richmond. The highway received a passing grade today, but as traffic volumes increase, the grade drops to an unacceptable level. ãThe curves through Paynesville and the narrow railroad bridge create traffic problems,ä Montebello said.

The survey identified existing corridor problems:
ðConcentration of access points: Traffic flow can be interrupted when access points such as cross streets and driveways are spaced too close together. This is a noticeable problem in Spicer and Paynesville and in the rural area between Spicer and New London.

ðCongestion/travel speed expectations: The rural nature of this highway leads to high expectations in terms of maintaining travel speeds and minimizing delays. The interruption of traffic flow and reduction of desired speeds are caused by frequent turning movements by trucks, recreational vehicles and farm equipment. Even when time delays are minor, driver perception of the problem is elevated if the speed changes occur often.

ðHighway intersection design: Generally, highway design needs to provide for good sight distance and traffic flow. However, significant problems are associated with the alignment of Highway 23 through Paynesville, narrow (four-foot wide) paved shoulders east of Paynesville, a narrow railroad underpass east of Paynesville, and a number of awkward and hazardous intersections throughout the route. In addition, some of the curves along the rural portion are perceived as being too sharp and a safety problem during winter snow and ice conditions.

ðPedestrian and bicycle conflicts: Motor vehicles often must share the road with bicycles and pedestrians, leading to slower speeds and potential safety problems, especially within the city limits of Spicer and Paynesville. In these two communities pedestrians and bicycles must cross a busy Highway 23 to reach recreation and business areas.
ðCommercial vehicles: Because Highway 23 serves as the major connection between St. Cloud and Willmar, there is a significant amount of truck traffic. The accommodation of these large vehicles on a high-volume, two-lane facility is a concern.

Traffic growth studies show rising use of Highway 23. In 1980, Paynesville had a daily traffic flow of about 2,800 vehicles. By 1994, that number had grown to 6,650 and is projected to increase to 11,600 by the year 2020. The 1994 summer traffic count in Paynesville showed greater usage of Highway 23 on weekends. On weekdays, the average daily count was 7,645 and on weekends it jumped to 9,975.

Zimmer urged communities along Highway 23 to look at alternatives which are suggested in the survey prior to the start of construction of Highway 23. Alternatives include developing more frontage roads or passing lanes. ãThe highway right-of-way may not always be there for development,ä she said. ãSpicer and New London have constraints and need to pay extra attention to environmental issues,ä she added.

Zimmer stressed the need to look at better management of access points (driveways) along the existing highway. ãCities need to look at consolidating highway accesses when looking at new development and closely watch how roads are tied into the development,ä she said. Zimmer urged cities to build frontage roads where able, to eliminate direct access to Highway 23.

The ideal distance between access points on a two-lane highway is a half-mile. On a four-lane highway, access points should be one mile apart.

Cost analysis will be discussed at the next meeting on Jan. 27 in Paynesville, Zimmer said. The analysis will look at the maximum improvements to Highway 23 which would include a four-lane highway. The minimum improvement option is a two-lane highway. A minimum built road would call for passing zones, a by-pass around Paynesville and four lanes in other areas.

No matter which option is selected, the entire highway would be reconstructed from the base up. This would include ditches and frontage roads. This reconstruction would eliminate problems at several intersections with hazardous designs.

SRF is gathering information on two bypass options for Paynesville: a north side and south side by-pass. ãThere is still a lot of work to do in evaluating the options,ä she added. The by-pass will include two bridges at Paynesville, a bridge over the North Fork Crow River and a bridge over the railroad.

Stearns County Commissioner Rose Arnold asked for a rough cost estimate on the project. Zimmer said about $60 million; $21 million for the Highway 71 to New London area alone. ãThe benefit of the cost analysis is to see what is feasible and what is not,ä she said.

Zimmer said the cost analysis is being broken into four areas: Highway 71 to Spicer, Spicer to New London, New London to Paynesville, and Paynesville to Richmond.

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