NAHSR_Preliminary Study_proposed-route_MAP Image 2016-1.jpg

A map of the NAHSR proposed high-speed rail route between Rochester and the Twin Cities.

ST. PAUL — A key Destination Medical Center leader voiced support today for an effort to build a privately funded high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities.

Lisa Clarke, executive director of DMC's Economic Development Agency, told a crowd of civic leaders gathered at Town and Country Club in St. Paul that improving the connection between Rochester and the Twin Cities is critical. That is especially the case as the $5.5 billion DMC initiative aimed at transforming Rochester into a global destination for health care moves ahead.

"It is important to connect these cities. Regionalism is important for us to share jobs, to make that transportation faster from one city to the next," she said.

Clarke made her comments at a private meeting sponsored by the North American High Speed Rail Group. The Minnesota-based company has proposed building a $4.2 billion high-speed rail line that would link Rochester and Bloomington.

An ice sculpture of an elevated high-speed rail train lit up in bright colors glowed as area leaders sat at tables eating breakfast and listening to a series of speakers. The event was a chance for rail supporters to make the case for the project It also offered the opportunity for representatives of China Railway International, who are visiting Minnesota, to tout the Chinese companies expertise building high-speed rail lines. North American High Speed Rail Group is in negotiations with the Chinese company to partner on the proposed 80-mile rail line.

Leaders gathered at the meeting watched a short video about China's high-speed rail industry and a PowerPoint presentation. A Chinese rail representative told those gathered that 62 percent of all high-speed rail in the world is in China. In total, China has nearly 13,000 miles of high-speed rail and some of its trains travel as fast 261 miles per hour. He said the Chinese-owned company has the expertise and experience necessary to build the rail line. The company has also submitted a plan to the Federal Railroad Administration outlining 10 potential high-speed rail corridors in the U.S. it wants to partner to build. The Rochester to Twin Cities corridor is one of them.

Clarke called the presentation "inspiring" and "exciting." She provided the audience with a basic overview of the DMC initiative, noting it is expected to generate anywhere between 25,000 to 35,000 new jobs in Rochester over the next 20 years. Given the need to find workers to fill those jobs, along with the challenge of getting patients to Mayo Clinic, Clarke said it is important to explore all transit options.

"I really believe there is an opportunity here like no other. We've got an economic sweet spot going on in Minnesota," Clarke said.

North American High Speed Rail Group Chairman and CEO Joseph Wang called the Chinese rail delegation's visit "historic" and said he is confident that high-speed rail can succeed in Minnesota.

"We are doing this because this great country needs it. Our next generation needs this type of green transportation," Wang said.

The rail group has yet to ink a formal deal with the Chinese company. The rail group's Chief Strategy Officer Wendy Meadley said the company is still negotiating with other countries to possibly provide the rail technology, but the Chinese company is the best option. The group also needs to raise $50 million from U.S. investors before it can advance to the feasibility phase of the project. The company also revealed it is working with architecture firm HGA to help design the line and the TEGRA Group, which will manage the project.

Opposition ramps up

As efforts to build the rail line begin ramping up, so does the opposition to the project. Heather Arndt, co-chairwoman of Citizens Concerned About Rail, said residents who live along the potential route remain concerned about its potential impact on their homes, farms and businesses. The group has teamed up with Goodhue County and farmer groups to sponsor a candidate forum at 7 p.m. on Oct. 6 at Cannon Falls High School. Arndt said the group plans to work with lawmakers next fall to pass legislation.

"We're not going away," Arndt said. "We are going to continue to move forward to try to protect our citizens."

'Absolutely essential' to Rochester's future

But supporters of high-speed rail say it's in the best economic interest of Rochester and Minnesota to get on board with high-speed rail. Midwest High Speed Rail Association's Executive Director Rick Harnish said in an interview that the Minnesota line makes sense — especially because of the draw of Mayo Clinic. He said he knows a Japanese company interested in investing in high-speed rail did a nationwide search to find viable corridors to be used as a test case. They identified three such corridors — including Rochester to the Twin Cities.

"Having a high-speed link between Rochester and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is absolutely essential to the future of Rochester, Minn. and the community should be getting behind it any way they can," he said.

Harnish said one of the big reasons to back bullet trains is the looming threat that oil prices will begin to climb again.

"There will be a day that the price of oil is going to shoot up again, and it's going to be harder and harder to get the employees that work in Minneapolis, St. Paul to work. And it's going to be harder and harder to get the high-value patients that you attract from all around the world to Rochester," he said.

Among those watching the presentations on Thursday was Bonnie Carlson, president and CEO of Bloomington Convention & Visitors Bureau. She said people don't realize how many Mayo Clinic patients and their families visit the Twin Cities while getting their medical treatment. Such a rail line could get passengers from Rochester to the Twin Cities in 29 minutes. Once there, they could shop at the Mall of American and check out the new sports stadiums.

Carlson added, "Why wouldn't we want to connect all this? For me, it all makes sense."

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Politics Reporter

Heather started at the Post Bulletin in 2005 and took on the politics beat in 2009. Prior to that, she reported on small towns in Dodge and Olmsted counties. When not working, she is likely to be found exploring Minnesota's hiking trails with her family.