by CHRIS ROGERS
Despite resistance from some of the communities in its path and fiscal conservatives, a proposed high-speed rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities called ZIP Rail is moving forward. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) announced two weeks ago that it intends to begin the $2.3 million first phase of an in-depth environmental study required for the project called an environmental impact statement (EIS). The entire study could cost around $7 million, and building the rail line is expected to cost roughly $2 billion to $4 billion. Meanwhile, bills are currently being discussed in state legislature that would ban public spending on ZIP Rail, including spending on the EIS.
The ZIP Rail project would build a new high speed rail line sending trains between Rochester and the Twin Cities at speeds over 100 miles per hour. The project would require acquiring land for a brand new rail corridor through the plains of Olmsted, Dodge, Goodhue, Rice, and Dakota counties, as well as the metro area. Mn/DOT also has been working on plans for years for a high speed rail line connecting the Twin Cities and Chicago. The current proposed route for that Minneapolis to Chicago high speed line, known as the River Route, traces the Mississippi River and stops in Winona. While official state plans call for the development of both ZIP Rail and the River Route, some Winona leaders have warned that if the ZIP Rail project advances first, it might supplant the River Route as Minnesota's segment of a Minneapolis to Chicago high speed rail line.
The state plans to spend $2 million in state funds on a feasibility study for the Zip Rail concept and the first phase of an EIS for the project. Part of that money has already been spent on the feasibility study. The second phase of the EIS, which might not be conducted if the first phase leads planners to scrap the project, is expected to cost $5 million.
This spring, several representatives and senators from across the state pushed back against ZIP Rail, authoring bills that would ban public spending on the EIS and on the multi-billion-dollar project itself. However, when a private group, North American High Speed Rail, announced it might be interested in privately funding the project, some opponents relaxed their stance, drafting legislation that would only block public spending on land acquisition, rail line construction, equipment, and operational costs, but permit public spending on planning.
Last week, Representative Steve Drazkowski drafted a bill that would bar the state, Olmsted County, the city of Rochester, and Rochester and Mayo Health Clinic's quasi-governmental partnership, Destination Medical Center, from spending public money on the ZIP Rail project, including both planning and implementing the project. Drazkowski's bill also bars the state and local governments from using eminent domain for the project. His bill would allow the project to advance with private funding, but requires private developers to post a financial assurance or bond that would fund the decommissioning of the rail line if their businesses fail.
Drazkowski stated that Minnesota light rail lines and high speed rail lines across the world have been heavily subsidized. If a private developer has a plan for high speed rail that he or she believes will be profitable, that is great, but taxpayers should not bankroll such an expensive project and citizens' land should not be seized for it either, he said. Rochester and the River Route communities, including Winona, both have advocacy groups that lobby for their respective high speed rail lines, but citizens are not asking for it, he continued.
If Drazkowski's bill does not succeed, Mn/DOT hopes to complete the ZIP Rail EIS by early 2016. That study would consider the new rail line's impact on farmland, the communities it would pass through, emergency services, demand for energy, wetlands and waterways, and soil resources, as well as other environmental and cultural issues.
In recent meetings with Mn/DOT officials, some Winona citizens suggested that instead of building a parallel high speed route between the Twin Cities and Rochester — ZIP Rail — that Mn/DOT should develop a spur line connecting Rochester to the River Route. That option was never considered, said Mn/DOT Passenger Rail Office Director Dan Krom. The purpose of ZIP Rail and similar projects is to connect the state's major regional centers, like Rochester and Duluth, to the Twin Cities, he explained. "That would be fairly circuitous to connect Rochester to the Twin Cities via the River Route," he added.
A new version of the state rail plan, including goals for the future of passenger rail and high speed rail, is expected to be released by Mn/DOT next month.