by Sarah Squires
The “River Route” connecting high speed rail through Winona and to Chicago and the Twin Cities is still on the table, after the Minnesota Department of Transportation released its draft State Rail Plan on Thursday.
The River Route, which includes upgrades to existing Amtrak lines through Winona, is listed within the plan as a “priority project,” and outlined as part of a 20-year state passenger and freight rail plan that could push the $20 billion mark. Winona and cities along the River Route have been lobbying for upgrades to the route in an attempt to cash in on billions of federal dollars designated for high speed rail.
Alongside the River Route’s bid, Rochester and the Mayo Clinic have been pushing for new tracks that would connect the city with tracks to Chicago. A route through Rochester also made the State Rail Plan’s priority list, outlining new tracks from the Twin Cities to Rochester, then identifying a “possible connection” between Rochester and Winona’s tracks to Chicago.
Supporters of the River Route say that upgrading the existing Amtrak tracks would be the most cost-effective way to connect to Chicago with high speed trains, and would provide Minnesota with a “shovel ready” high speed rail project, considered most favorable for federal funds.
Operating and maintenance costs for the 20-year plan, which includes high speed rail to Duluth and St. Cloud, is estimated at between $181 million and $140 million annually.
Winona’s Amtrak depot currently carries the second most passengers in Minnesota, second only to St. Paul. And supporters of the River Route say upgrading that link to accommodate high speed trains would cut travel time to Chicago by 25 percent, add 1,570 permanent jobs in Minnesota, and result in $2.3 billion in economic benefits to the state.
Jim Schmidt, Vice President of University Advancement at Winona State University, said that nearly 4,000 of the college’s 8,500 students were from areas along the proposed high speed line, while officials from Southeast Technical College and Saint Mary’s University echoed similar numbers. And, Winona’s passenger rail numbers grew more than they did statewide between 2007 and 2008, up almost 14 percent.
“We’ve been working for a long time with mayors and cities up and down the line,” said Winona Mayor Jerry Miller. “I think [the River Route project] would be a big benefit,” said Miller. “It’s good for the city, for our universities. You can get on a train here and go all the way to the West Coast. Winona has always been a railroad town, we used to have passenger trains six or seven times a day here.”
Interested in weighing in on the future of passenger rail in Minnesota? Contact U.S. Representative Tim Walz at 202-225-2472 or visit walz.house.gov/zip_auth.shtm to send an email.