Paynesville Press - November 16, 2005

A Minute with Mike

What MnDOT really wants

By Michael Jacobson

Better late than never.

I know people are tired about debating Highway 23. I know they are probably tired of reading my seemingly endless series of articles about task force meetings, public meetings, possible funding, etc.

It has been a mass of information, and my cynical side now wonders if that was by design.

In the last week - certainly in the last two months - I have learned more about MnDOT than I did in the previous four years of meetings about Highway 23.

I feel like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, when she sees behind the curtain and discovers who is pulling the levers. Only in the movie, a mere man is pulling the levers, acting as a mighty wizard. In Paynesville's case, I think a powerful government agency has been pulling levers while acting like they cared about us.

Maybe I should have unraveled this all earlier. But better late than never, and we still have time to fight for the best interests of Paynesville when it comes to the future of Highway 23.

Since the start of this study in 2001, I have felt that this Highway 23 decision would be incredibly important to this community. It's why I've attended so many meetings about it and tried to cover it as exhaustively as I knew how.

I still feel that this decision is key. It might be the most important decision this town makes while I am editor of the newspaper. And I still believe in public dialogue and that the citizens of our community should have a say in this decision, since it is so important to us.

I'm sorry this is so late in the process, but I finally found the right questions to ask, to get the right responses and information, and in so doing, I think I found what the hands on the levers behind the curtain were doing.

Early Clues
That MnDOT has greater motivations than Highway 23 serving our fair town shouldn't comes as a surprise to many in Paynesville. I guess the first clue was MnDOT's District 8 Office in Willmar was willing to pursue the project even though it wasn't technically in their area.

A township might work with a neighboring township on a road on their mutual border, but why would they want to build a new, better one that runs in that other township? Isn't it the nature of bureaucratic government to do the exact opposite? Be happy the problem isn't yours and not try to spend your budget and time solving someone else's problem.

As the Highway 23 process dragged on and on, I probably missed more clues. I always wanted to take a deeper look at how this process had worked in other communities but never had the time.

Still, I tried to follow the process. (I was going to say "progress," but it was difficult to discern any progress during long stretches of this study.)

I could sense frustration from task force members and from the public about the length of this whole ordeal, but I always steeled myself to attend another meeting and write another story because I remain convinced of the importance of Highway 23 to our community.

I guess the unraveling started for me when the west route was chosen as the "preferred alternative" in September. I guess my first impression was that the announcement seemed so anti-climactic. After four years of study, MnDOT project manager Lowell Flaten made the announcement in 30 seconds. The gist of which was that the Paynesville City Council had backed this route.

But, the plan he unveiled that day did not look anything like what I imagined the west route should.

I guess I should interject a couple of things here. First, I had come to realize that Paynesville people would never completely agree as to the best future route of Highway 23. There were too many pros and cons about the viable alternatives to ever totally unite.

I certainly had considered the west route the favorite so was not surprised at all by its selection.

But I was surprised by the plan.

I had heard some things loud and clear during this process. First, residents along the current highway, residents who have to walk or drive across it and residents whose houses would have had to have been demolished to improve Highway 23 through town said no more! They were tired of the noise and congestion and wanted the highway out of their residential neighborhoods.

I could see their point. The current layout of Highway 23 goes through much more residential areas of Paynesville than it ever did in Spicer, New London, Richmond, or Rockville. Just count the driveways or front yards bordering Highway 23 in our town. There might be as many residences right on Highway 23 in Paynesville as on the old highway in those five nearby towns combined!

Clearly, this 30-mph, congested highway needs improvement here.

Second, while residents expressed their dismay at the congestion, we also heard from businesses who value that traffic as customers. Initially, the clamor was to keep the same route, but business owners backed away when they started to see the implications (like the relocation of three dozen houses and businesses in town).

While I always had concern about businesses and the impact from the highway decision, I never believed some of the more severe predictions from the business community. Say that Paynesville would become a ghost town if a bypass were picked. It seemed to me that lots of businesses saw the highway decision solely through the prism of how close it brought traffic to their business and likewise to their competitors. This is another reason why consensus was impossible to obtain for any route.

Certainly, one of the strengths of the west route was that it skirted the west end of town (through a key business district, next to the school, and near other attractions like the golf course and even the airport (which also did constrict the design of both the west and far west)).

I had always considered the west alternative a favorite because it seemed to be a good compromise. It might not have been everybody's favorite, but it usually was towards the top of their list.

"Compromise" is a word the city council used in their official comments to MnDOT. But two things really struck me when the west was unveiled as the "preferred alternative" by MnDOT. First, as I have already written, was the speed. Second, was the lack of access on the west end.

Maybe I was naive, but I always thought that if the highway through town was 30 mph and the far west bypass was 65 mph, then the west route should be 45 mph. I always saw it going through Paynesville very much like Highway 23 goes through Cold Spring. It goes close to downtown (at Lake Avenue for us and by the original stoplight in Cold Spring), crosses a river, and then runs along a business district (the west end of Paynesville and the east end of Cold Spring).

But the design of the west route presented by MnDOT as the "preferred alternative" didn't have 45-mph speeds; it had 65-mph speeds! That wasn't the compromise route that I had envisioned.

Second, the plan did not have full access to the west end of Paynesville. The city council cited how the west route was better for business, a petition of 73 business people had voiced support for the west as long as we had input on speed and access, and the chosen design did not provide access there. The closest full access was an interchange with Highway 55.

Particularly peculiar was the bridge over Cemetery Road. Funny that MnDOT would want to build a costly bridge ($2.1 million, I know now) instead of something much less demanding, like an at-grade intersection for $86,000.

Flaten explained this expensive bridge in September with another reference to MnDOT guidelines, which I had heard many times, but I finally decided that maybe I should actually read those guidelines.

Highway 23 is a medium-priority interregional corridor for MnDOT. Under MnDOT's spacing guidelines, 2A means rural, where the spacing between full accesses is a mile. This is why MnDOT always said they could only put a half access on the west end because the west end is too close to Highway 55 for full access.

But, when I read MnDOT's spacing guidelines, the west route looked to me like it should be defined as 2B, which is defined as roadway in a municipality. Well, the west route runs within the city limits from the airport to the river, and then it has current or future city limits on the south side until Lake Avenue. It seemed to me that this section could be defined by MnDOT as 2B, which would allow for an intersection on the west end.

Under MnDOT guidelines, sections of 2B have recommended speeds of 40-55 mph, which is the range I thought appropriate for the new highway, while 2A highways had speeds of 55-65 mph, which I considered too fast.

I guess the most shocking thing for me at the informational meeting hosted by the city council two weeks ago was the vehemence with which Flaten disregarded any suggestions for negotiating on their plan.

Flaten and MnDOT's consulting engineers had described municipal consent as a give-and-take process. I wasn't surprised that MnDOT would want a high-speed, limited-access Highway 23, I even thought they might propose it, but I did not expect Flaten to dig his heels into the ground against any notion of compromise.

He even threatened going to mediation or dropping the project.

By then, the price tag had grown to $44 million for it, he was quick to note. But that seemed to totally miss our point. The things business representative Stan Yarmon was asking for would actually cost less! It would improve Highway 23 for Paynesville and cost MnDOT less.

I had talked to Stan before the meeting and told him about MnDOT's designation of 2A for Highway 23 and my belief that 2B was more appropriate. I knew that Stan would accept far less than he was asking for that night, but surprisingly Flaten rejected it all. He seemed to reject any notion of compromise on speed and access.

I called Flaten a few days after that meeting, and I have to admit I was a bit flustered and not able to remain very objective. If the municipal consent is a give-and-take process and the west is a compromise route, how is MnDOT going to compromise with us on speed and access, I asked.

The only answer I got was that MnDOT had compromised on the route, which I understood to mean that the west route was the city's top choice but not MnDOT's. But as to compromise on speed and access, Flaten said nothing.

I was frustrated by this attitude. Sure, we knew all along that MnDOT would try to build a faster highway through Paynesville, and, yes, I had heard him say many times that the interregional corridor guidelines discouraged stoplights, which I feel might be more appropriate for the west end. He said that Paynesville was automatically classified as 2A once we altered the alignment.

That is, once we chose to move the highway an inch, MnDOT no longer classified it as urban.

Flaten said they had always talked about a high-speed road, but I felt they had always talked about what the road could be. They had always stressed that they needed to plan in the Draft EIS for the all impacts of the maximum build, that is the largest footprint the road could ever have (four lanes, all interchanges). I didn't think Paynesville needed all this but I could see why they would only want to do this study once.

I wondered why something as important as reclassifying the road as 2A wasn't mentioned in the Draft EIS or why it had never been mentioned or explained in four years of meetings. No good answer. That might not be an environmental impact, but it certainly is an impact to Paynesville.

And if it was important enough for MnDOT to threaten to go to mediation rather than compromise, shouldn't we have been told?

Flaten also told me on the phone that the plan was always 65 mph, which wasn't my impression from all those meetings. Certainly, it had been stated that the highway could be that fast.

And now, Flaten was adamant against any stoplights. Certainly, I had heard him or the other engineers say countless times that stoplights are discouraged on interregional corridors. What else is MnDOT going to say? We understand that they don't want stoplights at every intersection.

But it was hard to see how serious MnDOT is about its stoplight aversion for Paynesville when Spicer and Cold Spring, both on the same interregional corridor, have had stoplights installed during improvement projects within the last few years.

So, no, Flaten had never promised stoplights, had never talked encouragingly about them, but he had never explained that this was an issue beyond negotiation either.

Other Clues
I had picked up other clues by this time. At that informational meeting, Flaten referred to a number on the map of the chosen plan as 3A, not 2A, and called it one of MnDOT's scenarios. Well, I certainly had never heard of that. After four years of meetings, you wouldn't think that I would be so clueless.

Also, in rejecting any notion of compromise on speed and access at the public meeting, Flaten had cited time of travel.

That also piqued by curiosity, so I dug back into my copy of the Draft EIS. I couldn't find any tables for "time of travel."

I asked for these scenarios on Monday, Nov. 7, and Flaten e-mailed them to me dutifully that very afternoon. Hmmm, while he had maintained such unwillingness to negotiate at the public meeting and in our conversations, here were scenarios that proposed the very things on which we were asking MnDOT to negotiate. The date for these scenarios...September 2005!

So, just a few months before this vehement stance against any compromise on speed and access, MnDOT had considered these things feasible enough to spend time drawing maps and figuring costs.

The cost angle was the real driver for MnDOT. These scenarios - which descend from #1 (max build) to #7 (two-lane highway) - weren't what MnDOT wanted to build, so much as their calculation of what they could build with a certain amount of money.

I sort of rushed to include these last week in the Press, in the box on page 2, and unfortunately made a mistake in reading the costs, which caused me to add some costs twice.

The correct range for these scenarios is $49 to $26 million.

Their real significance, as I see it, is that while MnDOT was telling us that an at-grade intersection on the west end was impossible, their very maps included it. Apparently, these guidelines that they always cited so quickly as a reason against an at-grade intersection at Cemetery Road could be bent after all.

The guidelines weren't the reason against an at-grade intersection, as far as I could tell, they were just being used as an excuse. MnDOT hoped to get funding to build a bridge over Cemetery Road, but they would be forced to create an intersection if they were short of funds.

Final Revelations
I e-mailed Flaten last week and asked for the time of travel data and analysis that seemed to be playing such a big part of their decision-making process. I requested the data and analysis for all the options in the Draft EIS and all the scenarios for the west alternative.

That's when I got shifted to Pat Weidemann, a planner for MnDOT. This may be crude, but if a project manager coordinates individual projects for MnDOT, a planner does more big-picture work, such as looking at medium-priority interregional corridors as a whole.

I had talked to Weidemann before about the financial aspects of Highway 23. That is, what the funding status was and what could be built with that amount, etc.

Like the city council and others familiar with this process, I had also heard Flaten refer countless times to reviewing decisions with MnDOT staff. And I was about to ask Weidemann the right question. Or maybe not quite, but close enough.

MnDOT didn't have time of travel data and analysis for all the routes and scenarios. But I knew they had some time of travel numbers that were driving their decisions.

Weidemann explained that MnDOT considers this segment of the medium-priority interregional corridor of Highway 23 to run from the intersection of Highways 23 and 71 near Willmar to Highway 15 in St. Cloud. That 55-mph target speed that I had unearthed in the Draft EIS was only measured for this entire corridor! Aha!

This means that this route is physically driven until a statistical accurate time is obtained. (The greater the range of times from driving, the greater the sample size needed, for you statisticians.) The goal is to drive the roughly 54-mile segment at 55 mph, or in just under one hour.

I had assumed that a target of 55 mph meant the speed through Paynesville, which I thought could be met on the west alternative by going 65 mph from the Kandiyohi-Stearns line to the curve by the airport, then 45 mph to Lake Avenue, and then 65 mph again east of town until rejoining the current highway.

But this isn't what MnDOT meant.

They judge this time of travel, basically the performance of the corridor, by the time at which they can drive from Willmar to St. Cloud.

I knew that Willmar's desire to get to Interstate 94 and St. Cloud was driving this project, but I did not know to what extent!

In order to keep the corridor functioning at this target time of travel, Weidemann explained, MnDOT had determined there could only be 11 stop conditions from the 23/71 junction to Highway 15. Two stoplights in Spicer, a four-way stop in Paynesville, two stoplights in Cold Spring, and five stoplights in St. Cloud make ten right now, and a new stoplight is being installed in Richmond. That's 11, but if you remove the four-way stop in Paynesville you're back to ten.

Weidemann said that MnDOT really wanted to save that last stop condition for a future use.

While the 2A designation was being pushed on Paynesville, Cold Spring, Richmond, and Spicer are rated 2B by MnDOT. Their reasoning is that these towns kept the existing alignments. St. Cloud is 2C.

And then it became clear to me. MnDOT was being so uncompromising about speed and access in Paynesville because they actually wanted this stretch to be fast, really fast, 65-mph plus.

Both Flaten and Weidemann tried to escape responsibility for the speed of their proposed west alternative. The speed limit would not be set for good until MnDOT does a speed study, measuring the speeds at which drivers actually drive it.

But, by now, I could see through MnDOT's vacuous, circular arguments. The type of highway built impacts the driving speeds, I asked. "Certainly," confirmed Flaten.

I really didn't need to ask him again. At the public meeting, he had justified the 65-mph speed for the west alternative by saying that drivers will naturally speed up when they reach a divided highway. No one asked why MnDOT was building a divided highway, but they are in the road building business and they know that a divided highway yields 65-mph driving.

Those proposed speeds aren't an accident; they're by design.

Here I, and many others, had assumed that MnDOT would be willing to compromise - like they did in Spicer, Richmond, and Cold Spring - when really the stoplights and speeds in those towns were being used against us. MnDOT wasn't willing to have slower speeds or stoplights in Paynesville precisely because they had elsewhere. Their primary goal isn't to make Highway 23 serve Paynesville better; it's speed from Willmar to St. Cloud.

Essentially, MnDOT is proposing virtually the max build for us. Their current proposal ($44 million) only needs to more interchanges - at Lake Avenue and Roseville Road, for a mere 10 percent more - to be a full grade-separated 65-mph freeway.

Dick Johnson's words come to mind when I thought of the excessize size of MnDOT's proposal. Is it really worth $44 million (as the price tag stands now) to save Willmar people a few minutes to drive to St. Cloud?, he has asked at several public meetings. Now I could see he had hit the nail right on the head.

I talked to Dick about this comment, and he explained that he always felt that MnDOT's designs for this project in Paynesville always seemed to exceed the immediate need. Sure, he sees congestion in Paynesville and the need for future improvements of Highway 23 but the scale of MnDOT's solution seemed too grand.

Drive to the Twin Cities on Highway 55 and get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Johnson added, and it makes you wonder why MnDOT is so eager to spend so much money here.

We pay taxes, too, is something I had heard Dick say at several meetings. MnDOT always tried to impress us with that amount of investment, he explained to me after my revelation, but it never seemed to be for us. "Does the bypass improve anything for Paynesville? It doesn't help us get to Willmar or St. Cloud," he explained.

As a matter of fact, at 65 mph, I think Highway 23 will be lost to many of us as a local road. For local trips, getting onto this new highway would offset any time savings for greater speed on short trips. My parents live by Hawick, and I'm not sure if they will use the new highway or not.

I suspect why MnDOT is pushing so hard to build so much here. You have to remember your MnDOT districts again. District 8 (Willmar) has no high-priority interregional corridors and two medium-priority interregional corridors (Highway 23 and Highway 212). District 8 has no primary regional trade centers and only three secondary regional trade centers (Hutchinson, Marshall, and Willmar).

District 3 (St. Cloud), on the other hand, has three high-priority interregional corridors (Highway 10, Interstate 94, and Highway 169) and a half dozen medium-priority interregional corridors (Highway 23, Highway 15, Highway 55, Highway 169 (past Princeton), Highway 210, and Highway 371). District 3 has one primary regional trade center (St. Cloud) and four secondary regional trade centers (Brainerd, Buffalo, Elk River, and Monticello).

The reason MnDOT District 8 wants to overbuild our section of road, I figure, is that this is their last, best chance to influence speed from Willmar to St. Cloud. After us, all the main towns will have been done: Spicer, New London, Richmond, Cold Spring, and Spicer. Only the rural sections would remain. These can be done easily enough; all it takes is funding. But these sections are already posted at 55 mph, so the time savings would not be as great.

Sure, another reason why MnDOT wants greater speed on Highway 23 through Paynesville is that the new route will be longer than currently, but according to my sample drive motorists would still save time with a 45-mph speed limit for the in-town portion. Besides, if choosing any bypass unequivocally meant 65-mph driving, then shouldn't MnDOT have said this clearly and explained why during the four-year Draft EIS process?

The estimated cost of $44 million for this project still seems like an excessive amount to me. The problem is that MnDOT wants to spend more on us than we want ourselves.

Speed vs. local access
For me, the final revelation was discussing the future risk of signals at either Lake Avenue or Roseville Road with Weidemann. The city, he admitted, thought Lake Avenue was a more appropriate place for a stoplight, but his opinion was that Roseville Road might be a more likely candidate.

Aha!, I thought again. Even if MnDOT allocates a stoplight to us, they aren't sure where it is needed!

As the interview turned back to Cemetery Road and the lack of access to the west end of Paynesville the last piece of the puzzle went into place for me. I had already made my views known that a serious flaw in the current MnDOT plan for Highway 23 was the lack of full access on the west end of town, and I had stated that I considered an at-grade intersection on the west end to be a priority for Paynesville.

I knew that MnDOT had resisted this, denying a request made by city administrator Steve Helget the day before for this very thing. But now Weidemann revealed the real reason.

Not having a full access on the west end made no sense to me because one of the prime purposes of choosing that route was its ability to serve this part of our town.

Why couldn't MnDOT understand that? Why were they so adamant about a $2.1-million bridge over Cemetery Road that provided only partial access, instead of an $86,000 at-grade intersection?

Oh, they know that there is demand on the west end, though they will argue that traffic will just have to be served by directing drivers with signs from the new freeway (rural expressway in MnDOT's official terms).

As presently configured, someone coming from the east, from St. Cloud, if they drove on the proposed highway to the west end and saw the school or golf course, they would not be able to exit until Roseville Road, two miles out of town.

But MnDOT's steadfastness in building that half interchange at Cemetery Road is not because a full intersection would not serve Paynesville; an intersection would serve Paynesville too well! Weidemann told me that MnDOT would not allow an at-grade intersection at Cemetery Road because they know that traffic would merit a stoplight at that location within a few years! In other words, they are risking an at-grade intersection at Lake Avenue because it might not need a stoplight, but they know a full intersection on the west end would need a stoplight!

From this, I conclude that MnDOT is not thinking about our best interests, just their speed needs from Willmar to St. Cloud.

You'll hear MnDOT say now that the access plan for Paynesville is "agressive," but this is a half truth. Just looking down the highway at the levels of access in our neighboring towns and then at MnDOT's proposal for Paynesville, it's easy to wonder what is "aggressive" about the access to Paynesville. What they mean is that it's "aggressive" for the 2A classification, while Cold Spring, Richmond, and Spicer are still classified as 2B.

I compare MnDOT's calling their proposed access as "aggressive" to this. Say we shrunk the paper size by 50 percent but added two pages (from 20 to 22) each week. In all, this would reduce the amount of newsprint, or newspaper, our customers received each week by 45 percent. But, when asked about the size of the newspaper, I would just repeat that we were adding two pages.

What Now?
I know people are tired and frustrated by the length of this process and feel we should get it done, but I still believe that this is too important for Paynesville to rush. Council member Jeff Bertram has asked why we should rush now since MnDOT has taken so long to get to this point. I agree.

Nobody is going to be happier than I when this is done, and I can stop reading engineering manuals and formulas from MnDOT. But this is too important to Paynesville for us not to make sure that the best plan is designed and built for us!

My sense is that there is growing consensus that we need greater access to this west alternative, especially a full access on the west end of town, and that a slower speed is more appropriate for the section in Paynesville (from the curve by the golf course and airport to the Lake Avenue intersection).

MnDOT is going to be reluctant to do this, but they can. And they will compromise if our city council demands it.

We need to be united about what we want now from MnDOT.

I'm willing to help MnDOT improve Highway 23. I heard from residents who don't like the growing congestion in our town, and I do think we should take this opportunity to improve the highway. But the west alternative was backed by the city council as a "compromise" route. I know we meant more by this than the physical location, which MnDOT keeps moving further and further out of town.

We need: (1) full access on the west end of town; and (2) slower speeds through the urban section of the west alternative in Paynesville. Do we really want our high school drivers to be getting on Highway 23 by PAHS and merging with 65-mph traffic?

I know some people will say this is why we should have chosen, say, the far west bypass and let the traffic zoom by Paynesville at 65 mph. I think there is merit to this view, and this option grew on me as the Draft EIS study dragged on and on. But we didn't select that route, and the necessity now is to make the west the best.

And I know the community won't agree on stoplights, which I think are a good idea for Cemetery Road and Lake Avenue, but some people feel these just irritate motorists. I'm not for stoplights because they will force traffic to stop here; I'm for them because I think they would give us locals greater access to the new highway.

Stoplights wouldn't be a dealbreakers if I got to vote on the city council for municipal consent, but a full access at the west end would be. A real access at the west end would give visitors to our town better ways to get to the school, golf course, airport, and businesses of the west end.

If MnDOT can figure a way to give full access with an interchange there, I would listen and compromise on speed. (My preference is 45 mph, but I could live with a posted speed slightly higher, even knowing that means drivers are going to go faster yet.) If not, it needs to be an at-grade intersection, which they will fight mightily because they know that whether they agree to put a stoplight there now or not, traffic volumes (and unfortunately accidents) will force them to eventually.

I know this column, like the Highway 23 process, has dragged on and on. But we still need to fight for Paynesville and do what is best for our town! We don't want to be the sacrificial lamb on the highway from Willmar to St. Cloud, and we will be if we let MnDOT have their way! Please pay attention, be vocal, support our city council as they negotiate with MnDOT, and help us do the best thing for our community.

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