Paynesville Press - February 20, 2002

A Minute with Mike

Chamber of Commerce conducts survey on Highway 23

By Michael Jacobson

The Paynesville business community agrees that some sort of improvements are needed on Highway 23 thru town, but not on what should be done.

In a nutshell, that's the main result of a survey of Chamber of Commerce members conducted in January.

With the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) contracting an engineering firm to complete a study on what the future route of the highway should be, the Chamber decided to gather the opinions and concerns of the business community over the five possible recommendations: no change to the existing road, improving the existing alignment, and three bypass routes. (See the map below).

The survey, which I wrote on behalf of the Chamber, was sent to 100 Chamber members in early January and I compiled the results, using 32 surveys for numerical ratings and 36 surveys for comments.

The survey asked for opinions and concerns about the highway in general and about each proposed route. And then it asked members to rate the route from one to ten, first as it would affect their specific business and then as it would affect the community as a whole. (Ten in this survey was for a positive effect, and one was for a negative effect.)

And the winner was...improving the existing alignment. Here are the average scores for the five routes, first as members considered their business, then the community:

Average Scores
RouteBusiness Community
Improve the
Existing Route5.72 5.78
West Bypass4.91 5.41
No Build4.56 4.34
Far West Bypass4.47 3.53
East Bypass3.75 3.25

These numbers indicate to me an agreement among Chamber members that something needs to be done to improve the highway. That's evident because improving the existing route scores higher than the "No Build" option.

It is further reinforced by the support for each bypass route. There was no runaway winner for a preferred route by the Chamber members, though clear support for keeping Highway 23 running through town was shown.

A second chart gets into another important question facing the town about Highway 23: To bypass, or not to bypass?

Top Scores
For this, I kept track of the route that each responder gave the highest score. (I did lump the two routes through Paynesville together, and not all the surveys indicated a clear preference.)
RouteBusiness Community
Existing Route13 15
West Bypass4 8
Far West Bypass7 4
East Bypass4 3

At first glance, this indicates substantial support for keeping Highway 23 running through the city of Paynesville. As we all know, businesses benefit from the highway exposure, from drive-by traffic, and from bringing visitors to our town.

Some Chamber members argued that 23 is the lifeblood of our community and predicted that moving it out of town would have detrimental impact on our downtown businesses. "Do we want to maintain a downtown business district?" asked one survey. "Or do we want to become a bedroom community?"

The dim view that many took to a bypass is evident in the support to keeping the existing alignment as shown in the table above. It also was evident in the fact that the far west bypass, which would take traffic the farthest out of town, received the most 1s in the numerical responses.

On the other side of the ledger, though, is the matter of congestion, which we also all know is a problem on Highway 23. Anyone who has had to wait in a line of cars on Highway 23 knows about this problem. So does anyone who has had to wait for minutes at the intersection with Highway 124 as endless traffic flows into and out of the town on 23.

Take another look at the table above. While at first glance it seems to support keeping the existing route, adding the numbers for all three bypass routes tells a different story. When the preference for all three bypass routes are grouped together, they total 15 responses, which means that half support a bypass, but they don't agree on which bypass is best.

"Ninety percent of the traffic doesn't want to be slowed down by traffic lights," said another survey backing a bypass. "(A bypass) would maintain Paynesville as it is."

The Chamber's next effort in the Highway 23 debate will be to look into the question of whether to bypass or not. The Chamber board is organizing a panel of representatives from towns that have experienced bypasses of major highways or opted not to bypass their towns. The panel will hopefully be the available at the next monthly Chamber luncheon, which is at noon on Wednesday, March 13, in the back room at Hilltop Restaurant.

One surprise for me in the survey was the support shown for the far west bypass, which also had a lot of detractors, as evidenced by the high number of 1s. This route, though, seems to be the truest bypass in that it would probably remove the most congestion in the city, and it's elimination of highway traffic by the high/middle school got it high marks for school safety. The west bypass seems to me to be a compromise, with the highway still touching the west end of town but then bypassing the main part of town, where it might be most difficult to improve the existing road without detrimental impact on houses and businesses along Highway 23.

That was another important response in the survey: the proposals so far do not provide much information. It is not known at all exactly where each bypass route might go. Perhaps more importantly, it is not known at all what improvements would be necessary to improve the existing route enough to satisfy MnDOT.

I believe MnDOT needs to show some sort of plan of what improving the existing route would look like before downtown supporters agree to a bypass. For instance, if the current route only needs a couple more stop lights and more turning lanes, those who support keeping it thru town will fight a bypass. If, on the other hand, MnDOT can show a need for four lanes thru town, the logical place for that size of road is a bypass, as four lanes would displace homes and businesses in Paynesville (city hall, the eletrical power substation, and the telephone company, for starters).

The survey also raised concerns about each route. The one that faces the most serious questions is the east bypass, which also finished last in the ratings. Concerns about this bypass route included: loss of holes for the golf course, dividing the city from the lake, taking part of the school property, and running through a new residential neighborhood.

One thing to remember is that the survey only recorded opinions, which could change depending on the answers the community gets from MnDOT.

If anyone wants a copy of the nine-page summary of this survey, they can stop and see me at the Press. Or they can contact Chamber president Chris Stanley at the Central Minnesota Federal Credit Union.

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