Paynesville Press - September 28, 2005

A Minute with Mike

Real battle on Highway 23 just beginning

By Michael Jacobson

I know people are tired of talking about Highway 23 and probably just relieved to learn the future route of this vital highway to our town.

MnDOT did announce last week that they have chosen the west route as the "preferred alternative" or future route for Highway 23. This, of course, comes after years of study and public discourse about which of these routes to choose.

I have attended dozens of meetings about Highway 23. I have filled several manila file folders with data, information, meeting notes, and actual stories that have ran in the Press. Generally, I do not write opinion pieces about hot topics in the community because I do so much reporting about these issues. But I remain convinced that the future of Highway 23 is an important decision for our community, and now I want to be sure that everyone understands that the stakes in the decision-making about Highway 23 are going to get higher.

What I mean is this: we now know the location of the new highway but we don't know what it will look like. No offense to the engineering professionals working on this project, but they are traffic engineers and would like to build an interstate-style four-lane highway with 70-mph speeds through Paynesville. I'm not at all convinced that this is what Paynesville wants or needs.

Among all the opinions and information about Highway 23, a couple things stand out to me.

First, we heard from highway residents and other townspeople who cross this busy road that the current traffic on Highway 23 is not ideal for residential living nor for people who want to safely drive or walk in our community. They wanted the highway moved from its current route.

Second, we heard from business owners that they value the highway traffic as a source of customers and as visibility for their businesses. Originally, there was strong support to keep the highway along its existing route, though this faded once the extent of the relocations required to make Highway 23 into a four-lane road were known. Still, businesses want to keep Paynesville visible to Highway 23 traffic and hope to continue to get thru-traffic to stop.

The chosen west route seems like a good compromise in these regards. It will run past far fewer residential homes (though some different ones), and it will keep the business district on the west end visible and have a connection (at Lake Avenue) that is close to downtown.

But all the benefits of visibility to our local businesses will be lost, in my opinion, if traffic is really moving at 70 mph. If I am driving on an interstate at 70 mph, I am not inclined to stop. I would either have to know where I wanted to go, or I would have to be able to see a restaurant or gas station well in advance. Otherwise, I usually keep driving to the next town.

The city council's unanimous backing of the west route was a key factor in the final decision on the route. But now that they've gotten the route they want, the bigger task of getting the speeds and accesses that are appropriate for Paynesville remains. The council still has the real power over influencing MnDOT's plans, since they must give municipal consent to the construction plans.

As it stands now, with the engineering plans being geared for 70-mph driving through Paynesville, the future speeds along Highway 23 would not favor Paynesville. Consider that drivers could go 70 from I-94 to Richmond (though slowing down in Cold Spring and slightly in Richmond), then they would have to drive 55 on the two-lane highway from Richmond to Paynesville, then they could SPEED UP! around Paynesville to 70, then slow down again once they hit the two-lane Highway 23 before Hawick, and then resume going 70 by New London.

As far as I know, Cold Spring and Spicer are going to have stoplights and speeds below 55 for the forseeable future. Paynesville should, too. And it's up to our city council to fight to reduce the engineering proposal to levels that make sense.

If MnDOT really builds a 70-mph interstate-type highway, then they've chosen the route incorrectly. This type of highway might as well have gone to the far west because traffic at 70 mph is going to bypass Paynesville entirely.

I know our elected leaders have heard from the business community about their desire to have easy access to the new Highway 23. A petition from 73 business people specifically asked MnDOT for input into the accesses to Paynesville, including slower speeds and stoplights.

I can drive along Highway 23 through Paynesville and see why it needs to be improved. In addition to the sharp curves, there are dozens and dozens of driveways. Highway 23 certainly goes through more residential areas in Paynesville than it ever did in Cold Spring, Richmond, New London, or Spicer. But the solution is not a 70-mph highway here.

I believe our city council should fight for at least three stoplights in town: at Lake Avenue (by the NSP substation), which would be a good entry to downtown; at Highway 55; and at Cemetery Road (on the west end of town). The ideal speed should be more like 45 mph than 70 mph.

This would slow thru-traffic a bit, but it would certainly go faster than currently. It would save money; a stoplight at Highway 55 would be cheaper than an interchange, and a bridge for Cemetery Road would not be needed.

The whole idea that Highway 23 now needs to allow for 70-mph traffic in Paynesville perplexes me. For years, Highway 23 traffic has had to yield to Highway 55! It's only been a few years that MnDOT has even judged that we merited a four-way stop for Highway 23. Now they want to skip stoplights and go right to bridges and interchanges!

Of course, stoplights would cause waiting time, both for local residents to cross or access Highway 23 and for thru-traffic, but at night or on weekends, when thru-traffic is heaviest, these trucks and cars would mostly have clear driving through PaynesvilleŠbut they also would have an opportunity to stop.

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