Paynesville Press - December 21, 2005

Minute with Mike

Does Highway 23 in Paynesville really need to be a freeway?

By Michael Jacobson

Well, Willmar MnDOT officials have proposed a bare minimum for us to consider accepting. Their plan for Highway 23 improvements in Paynesville was utterly ridiculous without full access on the west end. They now have provided that in their plan, which means we should at least consider this proposal.

But it still seems to me that Willmar MnDOT wants to significantly overbuild Highway 23 here.

Why does Highway 23 around Paynesville need to be a freeway?

The city council asked for full access on the west end, either an interchange or intersection, but MnDOT apparently did not even consider an intersection. Suddenly, these guidelines that they had so stubbornly cited as reasons for half access on the west end were overcome within a few weeks. The result is the new access proposal shown in the map this week.

This adds another $1 million to the cost for the project, including $3 million for all those ramps on the west end. Why would Willmar want to spend all that when an intersection, without a stoplight, would cost less than $100,000? Is this really a wise use of taxpayer money?

What's behind Willmar MnDOT's design is a desire for speed, to get traffic from Willmar to St. Cloud.

Before all these ramps and bridges are built with millions of dollars, making our small town look like some suburb, shouldn't we be asking if all this is really needed?

One of my objections to this plan is that it basically is a freeway, and after four years of meetings, after hearing or reading all the public comments during the route selection, I can honestly say that this route for Highway 23 was not chosen by us because it was a perfect spot for a freeway. In fact, the locals who recognized MnDOT's desire (and responsibility) for speed, capacity, and thru-traffic were lobbying for the far west bypass, not the west.

I don't remember anybody saying that we should choose the west route because it would be great to have a bypass like Rockville with traffic speeding past our town at 65 mph.

Here's how absurd MnDOT's current proposal is: they are proposing a road that is faster than Rockville's. Rockville is just classified as 2A (at-grade intersections). What Willmar MnDOT has proposed for us is basically 2A-F (full grade separated). In other words, a freeway.

Throw in another interchange at Lake Avenue - a mere $2 million more - and MnDOT can round their project off at $50 million and have a complete freeway in Paynesville!

Count the interchanges in Willmar MnDOT's current proposal for Paynesville. I see three: at the east end, at Highway 55, and on the west end. Then go east on Highway 23 and count interchanges. The first one is at I-94 by St. Cloud. Then, after 20 or so stoplights in St. Cloud, the next one is at Highway 10 in Sauk Rapids, if I'm not mistaken.

So, Willmar MnDOT thinks we should have more interchanges - and no stoplights - than the stretch from Richmond to Sauk Rapids.

At least around Willmar there are interchanges on Highway 23.

But Willmar MnDOT has no plans for interchanges in Spicer. It is making plans for an interchange at Highway 9 by New London.

St. Cloud MnDOT has no plans for interchanges in Richmond, Cold Spring, or Rockville either. And no plans for a bypass of St. Cloud, since their studies indicate that St. Cloud is a destination for a significant amount of Highway 23 traffic.

Again, why does our section have to be a freeway? Why can't we build a four-lane bypass, increasing speed for MnDOT, and have at-grade intersections at Cemetery Road/Main Street and at Lake Avenue?

Of course, I think in time these intersections will merit stoplights. What Willmar MnDOT wants is to skip right to interchanges, even though the traffic volumes don't warrant this.

Willmar MnDOT has made a district decision that Paynesville will have no stoplights on Highway 23. What this does is frees our two current stops for future use in Richmond, Cold Spring, Rockville, or St. Cloud! And leaves us with this proposed freeway!

I think that the Willmar MnDOT office wants to pave everything they can while they have our project on the table. To forever eliminate any chance for stoplights in Paynesville, they are prepared to spend $47.5 million. By contrast, I-94 to Richmond cost $60 million, and the Spicer and New London project cost less than $40 million.

Everyone who has an interest and opinion needs to contact the city council and express it within the next couple months. I know people are tired of Highway 23 discussion, just want a decision, or just like to drive freeways. (Hey, I do, too.)

I'm willing to live with whatever this community decides, but I don't think we should have to have a freeway because MnDOT wants one.

We can urge our city council to give municipal consent. This would get the traffic out of our town - which we heard from residents as much-needed progress - and would give us a new highway, which we won't outgrow for a long, long time.

Or we can urge our city council to reject this proposal or put conditions on it. This carries risk, because Willmar MnDOT could walk away from this project. Or they could delay the project and reopen the route selection.

But I think we should call their bluff. They obviously want this project, so much that they are eager to overbuild it. They want to spend $47.5 million and build the highway we might need in 2050 in 2010!

I know to delay this project would be an inconvenience. But really we just have had the four-way stop for a couple years and we just got the three-lane all the way to Highway 55 this year, and now the current Highway 23 is going to be adequate for a few years. Willmar MnDOT has this project scheduled for 2015-2023 anyway.

Since the city council has 90 days to decide about municipal consent after the public hearing, which most likely won't occur until February, we have until May to decide. What I propose is to explore our options, using political power to see how set in stone this latest proposal really is.

Willmar MnDOT seems unwilling to listen to reason - such as that Highway 23 should still be classified as 2B because it still goes through the city limits. Instead, they say things like: "It's on new alignment, so we don't consider this in town."

Someone at MnDOT will listen, though. Other MnDOT officials - with greater traffic than the Willmar office - must be able to see that this plan is a massive overbuild.

I like what councilor Jeff Bertram suggested last month: start at the top and work down. Surely, someone at the state office should be able to listen to reason, tell Willmar MnDOT to classify Highway 23 as 2B in Paynesville, and cut their costs by using an at-grade intersection, instead of an interchange, at Cemetery Road/Main Street.

If these efforts are not successful this winter, then the city council would still have time to approve Willmar MnDOT's plan next spring.

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