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Tribune Editorial: Transit needs don't end with successful bypass at Paynesville

There's a ribbon cutting today marking the official opening of the Minnesota Highway 23 bypass of Paynesville.

The 7½-mile, four-lane stretch actually opened July 20, a month ahead of schedule.

We commend KGM Contractors, the company that built the bypass, the state Transportation Department as well as all the advocates and government officials for their contributions to the project.

The residents of Willmar and Paynesville deserve special recognition. If advocates in Willmar hadn't pushed to have the bypass completed sooner rather than later and found the money, the project might not have been completed for many years. And Paynesville residents supported the plan.

Besides the new stretch around Paynesville, there is the bypass in Willmar -- first done in a two-lane configuration in the '80s and then completed as a four-lane road in 2001 -- and the expressways from Spicer to New London and from Richmond to Waite Park, both completed in 2005.

All these projects are signs of progress, but there's much more to be done.

We need Highway 23 to be a four-lane road all the way from Willmar to Interstate 94.

Somehow Willmar and the area around it has survived and even grown without a four-lane highway.

In fact, Willmar is the only regional center with a population of 20,000 or more without a four-lane road, leaving west central Minnesota in a transportation void.

Given what we've achieved without a four-lane highway, what could we do with one?

The lack of an adequate highway affects the area in ways apparent and subtle.

Communities near a highway have a better chance of attracting businesses and the people necessary to fill the jobs new businesses create.

But we all know what it's like to drive to this area from the Twin Cities or St. Cloud. Just as we get going, we have to slow down as we pass through another community or get trapped behind some slow-moving vehicle.

Some of us may have become numb to those trips, but we get to see it from outsiders' eyes whenever friends or family visit. Many of us have heard from visitors about what a long, tedious drive it is.

What impact does the lack of a four-lane highway have on tourism in the land "Where the Lakes Begin"?

The Transportation Department says that because of budget constraints, it will be at least a decade before there will be enough money for upgrades of the two remaining two-lane stretches of Highway 23 in the region -- from New London to Paynesville and from Paynesville to Richmond.

That's what it said until a few years ago about the Paynesville bypass.

But concerned citizens pushed for it, as we must continue to advocate for our transportation needs.

With that advocacy, maybe we can get one or both of those upgrades in way less than a decade.