Pawlenty opens door to Rochester high-speed rail

By Heather J. Carlson

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

ST. PAUL — Rochester’s high-speed rail quest got a major boost on Friday from Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The Republican governor announced that he is directing the Minnesota Department of Transportation to consider all possible routes for high-speed rail — including a route that would serve Winona and Rochester.

"We’re back in the game," said Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem.


Rochester’s efforts to be part of a high-speed rail line from Chicago to the Twin Cities had hit some roadblocks in recent months. A Senate committee killed a bill sponsored by Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester, that would have provided $500,000 for a Rochester high-speed rail study. Meanwhile, a strong coalition of lawmakers in favor of having high-speed rail run along the Mississippi River also emerged; the Senate passed a public works bill that included $5 million for an environmental study of the river route, which would run through Winona to St. Paul.

But the governor made clear Friday that the decision about where rail should go should not be decided by legislative politics. Rather, it should be based on a data-driven process.

"We should consider every option, including rail, as we build a 21st century transportation system that assists economic development and better moves people and goods around our state," Pawlenty said.

Discussions with Walz

The governor’s announcement came after several discussions with First District Rep. Tim Walz. The Democratic congressman said he urged the governor to make sure all routes in the state had the chance to be considered and studied.

"I think both the governor and myself felt like this has to be a decision that is based on hard data, hard numbers and what is best for the long-term growth of Minnesota," Walz said. "And I think in a lot of those discussions, to be quite frank, people were making a case of one route over another without a lot of facts to back it up."

Adding a sense of urgency to the rail debate is $8 billion in federal stimulus money available for high-speed rail projects. Pawlenty’s announcement requires MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel and the Minnesota Intercity Passenger Rail Transportation Forum to study all potential funding for future rail lines. The governor is also directing that the statewide rail plan study looks at the "Northern Lights Express" route between the Twin Cities and Duluth, and a Twin Cities-to-Chicago high-speed rail line that serves Winona and Rochester.

Winona Mayor Jerry Miller said he is encouraged that Winona is mentioned as part of the rail discussion. But Miller said he believes it still makes the most sense to build high-speed rail on the existing Amtrak line and then work with cities — including Rochester — to connect them to the rail line.

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