By Ivan Raconteur
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN McLeod County’s plan for reconstruction of CSAH 23 east of Lester Prairie was met with harsh opposition during an open house Wednesday evening at the Lester Prairie City Hall.
Residents affected by the project subjected McLeod County Project Engineer Tim Becker and McLeod County Commissioner Ray Bayerl to a two-and-a-half hour barrage of tough questions centered around four questions; Why here? Why now? Why so expensive? and why aren’t taxpayers asked for input earlier in the process?
Several residents asked why the county is repairing this section of road (the 1.25 mile section of CSAH 23 between McLeod County Road 9 and the eastern county line). Some indicated other areas that they said should be higher priorities.
Becker said this project has been planned for three or four years and is on the county’s five-year road improvement plan.
The poor condition of the pavement is the main reason for upgrading this road, Becker said.
Bayerl said the county tries to spread road projects around the county as funding becomes available.
Why so expensive?
In response to questions about why the road is being improved to the extent it is, including the addition of eight-foot wide shoulders on both sides, at an estimated cost of $1.6 million. Becker said if the county upgrades the pavement without bringing the road up to current standards, it would lose the $720.000 in federal funding it received for the project, which accounts for 80 percent of the total cost.
Both Jerry Pawelk and Fred Holasek said they would like to see figures for what it would cost to repair the road without bringing it up to current standards.
Several residents asked what it would cost to simply overlay the existing road and fix the bridge, rather than doing a complete reconstruction.
Becker said even if this is done, the Great River Energy power poles would have to be moved at an estimated cost to the county of $300,000.
In addition to the cost of moving the power poles, it would cost about $300,000 to do a simple overlay and bridge improvement, Becker said. He cautioned that, based on the condition of the pavement, an overlay would only last about seven years.
Some residents said that in view of the current economic conditions, the road should not be improved at all at this time.
When Becker said the federal government is “giving us the money to do the project,” resident George Phelps replied that “They are giving us our money.”
Throughout the meeting, Phelps reiterated that it doesn’t matter whether it is at the local, county, or federal level, tax dollars come from taxpayers, and government should not be spending money it doesn’t have.
“It should start at the local level, doing the right thing,” Phelps said, “and we are not doing the right thing spending that kind of money on this short section of road.”
Some residents even asked if the county could give the money back to the federal government.
Becker and Bayerl said even if the county were to return the money, it would be spent elsewhere.
Even if federal dollars aren’t used for the project, something needs to be done with the road, Becker said.
Why aren’t taxpayers asked for input earlier in the process?
Pawelk asked why the county doesn’t conduct public hearings before spending money on engineering costs.
“You are putting the horse before the cart,” Pawelk said.
“You are getting a lot of information tonight that you should have had much earlier in the process,” Pawelk added.
“You should have sought public input two or three years ago when the decision was made (to go ahead with the project),” Holasek said.
Pawelk accused the county of hiding the important facts about the project until it was too late to change anything.
Becker replied that the county’s five-year plan is available on the county web site, www.co.mcleod.mn.us.
Several residents expressed frustration at the fact that the plan was complete and their comments would not have any impact on the county’s decisions.
Holasek acknowledged that neighbors are always impacted by road construction projects, but said the county could soften the impacts by getting people involved earlier in the process.
In response to a question about whether the road will be closed during construction, Becker said the road will probably be closed except for local traffic. He added that it is the contractor’s responsibility to maintain access for property owners in the project area during construction.
Some residents scoffed at the county’s assertion that about 1,000 vehicles per day use that section of road.
Residents also questioned the assertion that the project will make the road safer.
Some said most of the six or seven accidents on the road in the past five years have been car-deer crashes, and increasing the speed on the road might increase, rather than decrease, the number of crashes.
Residents also expressed concern that increasing the speed on the curve on the McLeod County side, when the curve on the Carver County side will not be improved, will create a safety issue because people driving at the higher speed on the new curve might try to drive too fast on the Carver County curve.
One resident asked if McLeod County can delay the project until Carver County improves its section of the road.
Becker and Bayerl said Carver County does not have the road on its improvement plan, and if McLeod County were to delay the project, it would lose the federal funding.
“We did contact Carver County, and they do not have funds to do their section,” Becker said.
Other residents stressed the need for improved communication.
Some residents questioned why, if the project has been on the county’s five year plan, they were not notified of this when they applied for permits, one for a new house, and one for a new septic system.
The residents who made these improvements said they would not have built them where they did if they had known about the road project and the additional right-of-way the county would be seeking.
Construction on the project is scheduled to begin in June 2010, with final paving to be completed in 2011.