Critics of the controversial Zip Rail project are working hard to ensure their voices get heard during a critical year of the planning process.

Goodhue County citizens Nora Bryson Felton and Heather Arndt, two of the project's most vocal critics, were added to Zip Rail's Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) in November. They've attended just one meeting thus far, but Felton says it's "helped us understand the process better and report back to our group."

That group — dubbed Citizens Concerned About Rail Line (CCARL) — has held multiple meetings in Red Wing that have become increasingly popular. After its last meeting drew about 30 people, its next meeting is planned for 5 p.m. March 5 at Schweich Bar & Hotel in Kenyon.

CCARL's initial request that Zip Rail developers form another group to accept more citizen feedback was also agreed to earlier this month. Zip Rail officials are currently accepting applications through Feb. 27 for the new Zip Rail Community Advisory Committee (CAC) after concerns were raised that input was too slanted toward Rochester and Olmsted County.

Felton said those actions represent a step in the right direction for citizens in Goodhue and Dodge counties, who have been highly critical of the high-speed rail project that seeks to connect Rochester to the Twin Cities.

The Zip Rail proposal has been under discussion for more than a decade, but most local citizens only learned of it in 2014 when public meetings were held in Rochester, Kenyon and Inver Grove Heights by project manager Chuck Michael. Felton says they deserve a seat at the table, too.

"Those concerned in the corridor have not yet got to have a place at the table yet," Felton said Friday. "Actually, what we'd like to have is a voice that says no build."

A press release issued this week from Zip Rail says the CAC committee will consist of "area residents, employers, travelers and others" after all applications are submitted. It will provide feedback on the Draft Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement as part of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Olmsted County Regional Railroad Authority and the Federal Railroad Administration's continuing evaluation of the proposed project.

Though no funding is currently available, a price tag has not yet been projected and construction remains years away, if ever, it's considered a critical summer for Zip Rail. Developers have targeted the fall of 2015 to complete the next phase of the EIS, at which point a no-build option could be designated as the preferred option.

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