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Mayo Clinic hires firm to explore bypass route for DME

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By Matthew Stolle

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Mayo Clinic has hired an engineering firm to investigate what long has been considered a dead issue: the possibility of a bypass route around Rochester for coal-bearing trains heading to markets east.

The news came to light in a debate Thursday when one of the participants, congressional Republican nominee Brian Davis, revealed that Mayo had employed a railroad engineering firm to evaluate the possibility of a bypass route.

Davis, a Mayo Clinic doctor who is challenging Democratic Rep. Tim Walz for his congressional seat, said he was told of the development in a teleconference held in late August with two Mayo officials who gave him permission to disclose the development should the occasion arise.

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Davis declined to name the two Mayo officials in a later interview, but said one was in Washington and the other was a Mayo legal adviser. The briefing was provided to Davis because of his status as a congressional candidate.

The chances of a bypass have long been considered a dead issue. In 2002, Federal Surface Transportation Board declined to order Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad to build a bypass around Rochester.

At the time, DM&E was pushing expansion plans that called for running scores of trains carrying low-sulfur coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin through the heart of Rochester -- a prospect Mayo warned threatened the clinic and its patients.

DM&E purchase

In September, Canadian Pacific agreed to buy DM&E, a year after the Federal Railroad Administration rejected the South Dakota-based railroad’s request for a $2.3 billion loan.

Chris Gade, a Mayo spokesman, said the clinic hired a firm to look at the possibilities "for in-city mitigation, along with other options, including outside the city." Gade said. "There’s a whole range of options that are being explored."

Gade added that Canadian Pacific was aware of the engineering study, but he did not know the railroad’s attitude toward it.

Canadian Pacific did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

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The possibility of a bypass running south of the city holds both promises and perils. State Sen. Dave Senjem, of Rochester, who was present at Thursday’s debate, said he was stunned when he heard the news.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks," said Senjem, the state Senate minority leader. "I thought it was out of the question."

Senjem, who is employed by Mayo Clinic, sat on the Rochester City Council in the late 1990s when the council unsuccessfully tried to push the bypass option. "It was like the Civil War in Rochester," pitting the city against rural residents as well as the city against DM&E, Senjem said.

He said he had always assumed the bypass idea was dead and that whatever mitigation did occur, it would involve a recessed railroad bed and high vertical walls running through Rochester. Talk of a bypass is likely to revive that rancorous debate, he said.

Political help

At the forum on Thursday, both Davis and Walz spoke of the need to find a common solution. Davis, in particular, extolled the benefits of a multi-modal transportation hub involving rail, Interstate 90 and Rochester International Airport that would create jobs and new infrastructure.

"That would be fantastic, but we have to investigate this further," Davis said.

Walz, a Mankato high school teacher who was elected as a Democrat to Congress in 2006, opposed DM&E’s plan. He indicated a new spirit of cooperation is being built among the major players. He said he has met dozens of times with the Rochester Coalition as well as nearly a half-dozen times with Canadian Pacific chief executive officer Fred Green. The Rochester Coalition includes Mayo Clinic, the city of Rochester, Olmsted County and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce.

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"We can build and expand our infrastructure. And if it is the Canadian Pacific building to move our commodities, to move our cellulosic ethanol or to move coal from the Powder River Basin -- because I’ll tell you what, if you don’t believe in coal, turn these lights off right now because that’s where it’s coming from," Walz said.

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