With no federal funding for high-speed rail on the horizon, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials are considering suspending work on Zip Rail once an environmental review is done.
"We recognize that without a reliable source of funding for the planning and construction of a high-speed rail line, the project really just is in kind of limbo," said MnDOT Chief of Staff Eric Davis.
Work is underway on a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement that involves analyzing eight potential routes for the proposed high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities. Once that environmental analysis is completed, Davis said MnDOT is considering suspending work on the project, although no official decision has been made.
"There is some concern about the timing of undertaking the next phase of work because arguably that would be a waste. We would rather have identified a funding source before we would do that work," Davis said.
He added it also would be a logical place to stop work on the project in case the state decides to allow the North American High Speed Rail Group to move ahead with plans for a privately funded high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities.
"We recognize this would be a prudent place to pause if we were going to hit the pause button," Davis said.
The draft EIS is expected to be completed in early 2016.
Drazkowski claims 'fundamental corruption' in rail analysis
As talk emerges about suspending work on the Zip Rail project, Mazeppa GOP Rep. Steve Drazkowski is criticizing the work being done on the project. Drazkowski sent a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration Region IV Administrator Steven Illich late last month in which he accused the state of failing to follow federal requirements, writing that "the process has become shady." He also alleges there is a "fundamental corruption in process."
Specifically, Drazkowski said he is concerned about a lack of transparency surrounding the rail review process and has heard from constituents who feel shut out of the process.
"I think it's important for the federal government to oversee this and know that it seems that things are not being properly followed," he said in an interview.
Drazkowski also raises concerns about the Zip Rail Community Advisory Committee, writing that the group is "nothing more than a rubber-stamp assembly" and notes it has only met once so far.
Davis said MnDOT has closely followed the federal requirements and has gone out of its way to reach out to the public. He noted the public has had a chance to weigh in on the project at three dozen meetings with public boards and commissions, six formal public meetings and during an extended comment period on the recent scoping document.
"I'm not sure why the representative feels compelled to describe the process as something shady or back room because it's not accurate in our view," he said.
Davis added that having a community advisory committee is not a federal requirement but something MnDOT decided to establish to help broaden public awareness about the project. While Davis said he knows there are people who are strongly opposed to the rail project, it also has plenty of supporters.
"The representative's letter implies that the state is doing this without the consent of people who are citizens along the corridor, but that's inaccurate. There are a lot of folks that are invested in its success, so we are taking it through the process," he said.
Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said Drazkowski's claims that the state isn't following federal regulations are false.
"It's nothing but BS, blowing smoke. I have no idea what his goal or aim is, but it's simply not true," Brown said.
Frustration over pace of rail negotiations
The commissioner also voiced frustration that the state has yet to reach a deal with the North American High Speed Rail Group. The company is seeking to build an 84-mile, elevated high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities. The $4.2 billion project would be funded through a combination of Chinese and U.S. investors. As part of the project, the rail group would develop real estate that ties into the rail line.
The company wants the state to grant it exclusive negotiating rights for two years to air space along portions of Minnesota Highway 55, U.S. Highway 52, U.S. Highway 63 and Interstate 90. The group has been been in talks with MnDOT officials for months about the idea.
"I don't know why it's taken so long; this is relatively simple," Brown said. "They want to study it, so let them study it. There's nobody else in line. You haven't spent any money, and let them determine whether they are going to keep spending their money."
At this point, Davis said the rail group's proposal is in a "holding pattern" as state officials consider the request.
"The governor has been very explicit that he will make that decision about whether our agency enters into any agreements with North American High Speed Rail Group and that he would do so only after consulting with legislative leadership," Davis said.
The rail group's spokeswoman Wendy Meadley said there continues to be confusion about the two rail projects. She said Drazkowski's letter seems to mix the two projects into one. She said Zip Rail is the publicly funded proposal that has to adhere to a long list of federal and state requirements. Her company's plan would be very different because it is financed without any public money.
"That is confusing to people, and where the confusion lies is our project has nothing to do with Zip Rail, and Zip Rail has nothing to do with our project," Meadley said.
She added the rail group has been in communication with the Federal Railroad Administration, and "they are not averse to our project, if MnDOT is fine with it."