by CHRIS ROGERS
When Minnesota Legislators and Governor Mark Dayton sit down to decide how much money to borrow this year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) hopes it will get $21 million for passenger rail projects and project planning. If they get it, Mn/DOT officials have not decided exactly where the money would go. Projects that would expand passenger rail service between St. Paul and Chicago, including stops in Winona, are one possibility. A project to create high-speed rail service to Rochester, which some Winonans have described as a competing project, is another.
Every year, the legislature and the governor borrow money — or in government terms, sell bonds — to pay for a variety of capital projects around the state. State parks get funding, state colleges and universities get funding, some local governments get funding, and other state agencies like Mn/DOT get funding. All of these branches of government submit requests for bonding to the Dayton administration's Minnesota Office for Management and Budget (MMB) in November. The $21 million passenger rail request is number 10 on Mn/DOT's wish list, just after a request for millions to improve Minnesota ports and just ahead of a request for millions to repair historic bridges.
In their request, Mn/DOT officials describe various passenger rail projects they might fund with the $21 million. Mn/DOT might use some of the money to continue developing a planned passenger rail line from the Twin Cities to Duluth called Northern Lights Express (NLX). It might use some of the money to pursue adding a second daily Amtrak train that would double the frequency of Amtrak service between Chicago and St. Paul, including stops in Winona, La Crosse, and other river towns. Also, Mn/DOT might use the money to plan a high-speed rail line between Rochester and Minneapolis called ZIP Rail, according to Mn/DOT officials funding request.
In an interview, Mn/DOT Passenger Rail Office Director Dan Krom explained that the $21 million request was a best guess at the resources the state will need to advance rail projects over the next four years. The department has yet to decide exactly how to spend those funds because some important details — like exactly what federal assistance will be available — have yet to be determined, and because the state needs to remain flexible in its spending plans in order to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. "So it's kind of hard for me to pin down what monies are going to go where," he said. As planned projects go through environmental reviews, that can change details, too, he continued. Federal officials might require Mn/DOT to do extra environmental studies or consider new routes, Krom explained. "We just have a ballpark amount based on the status of projects being developed [so] that we will have money available to work on them," Krom added.
However, Mn/DOT would not decide how to use the money willy-nilly, Krom said. "They are all projects that are identified in our state rail plan. That's our guiding document," he explained.
ZIP Rail is mentioned in a draft version of a new state rail plan that was released in March 2015. In that plan, ZIP Rail is described as a spur line between the Twin Cities and Rochester that would be separate from any effort to connect Chicago and the Twin Cities with high-speed rail. Mn/DOT helped fund planning work for both ZIP Rail and the River Route, the official state and federally designated high-speed rail route to connect St. Paul and Chicago. The River Route runs along the Mississippi River with stops in Winona, La Crosse, and other river towns. Mn/DOT officials stressed that ZIP Rail was not competing with the River Route, but Winona leaders involved in rail planning were not so sure. Supporters of the River Route see a second daily Amtrak train as the first step toward developing ridership for high-speed rail on the River Route, but they have raised concerns that the ZIP Rail project was a bid by Rochester leaders to route the regional high-speed rail line to Chicago through Rochester and away from Mississippi River cities.
Around the same time that the draft rail plan came out, a private company called North American High Speed Rail (NAHSR) approached Mn/DOT with a plan to build high-speed rail from Minneapolis to Chicago via Rochester. They proposed a privately funded high-speed rail line partly backed by Chinese investors that would run on an elevated track next to or in the air above Highway 52. Top state officials worked with NAHSR for months to develop the proposal and talked with NAHSR leaders about NAHSR taking over the ZIP Rail project, including the purchase of environmental studies conducted for ZIP Rail.
If NAHSR is taking over the ZIP Rail project, why should the state borrow more money for ZIP Rail? Krom explained that the ZIP Rail environmental studies would not actually be of any value to NAHSR because the projects were too different. However, he continued, if NAHSR wants to build high-speed rail in the exact same corridor as the ZIP Rail project, Mn/DOT should make sure it is not duplicating the efforts of the private sector. "It wouldn't make sense for us to continue our project looking at connecting the two end points if there's a private group looking to do it," Krom said.
Whether NAHSR's project idea will succeed is unclear; it is still in its very early stages, Krom continued. "We're at a crossroads right now," he said of ZIP Rail, NAHSR, and high-speed rail to Rochester.
Around the start of this spring's legislative session in March, Governor Mark Dayton is expected to make his formal proposal for the 2016 bonding bill, which might differ from agencies' requests. The legislature will likely pass a final bonding bill for Dayton's approval by the end of the session in May.
The draft state rail plan is still being reviewed. A final version is expected this spring.