ST. PAUL — A bill prohibiting any public dollars from being spent to build a high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities cleared its first legislative hurdle on Monday.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, is sponsoring the measure. It bans the use of eminent domain to build the project. It also prevents any public dollars from being used for the project, including money from cities, counties and Destination Medical Center. Drazkowski said the law is needed to protect taxpayers.
"You have really this almost race to fund this nostalgic idea that saddles the taxpayer with a perpetual liability and that's what we're trying to avoid here. We're looking out for the taxpayers," Drazkowski said.
The bill would also require projects expected to cost more than $1 billion to purchase environmental insurance. Companies leasing state-owned property, including air rights, must also provide a financial guarantee that the state will be able to recoup costs if the project fails.
Some Democrats raised concerns during Monday's hearing that the bill infringes on the rights of local governments to make decisions. Rep. Andrew Carlson, DFL-Bloomington, noted the public Zip Rail proposal has been shelved due to a lack of money and it appears a private group's effort to build the line has stalled.
Carlson added, "It appears to be essentially dead. So my question is is all of this even necessary despite the fact this project in the foreseeable future is going nowhere?"
Drazkowski countered that unless Carlson can guarantee the project will not move ahead, residents who live along the corridor need the protection of legislation.
The House Transportation and Regional Governance Policy Committee approved the bill on a voice vote. It now heads to the House Taxes Committee. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mike Goggin, R-Red Wing.
The status of high-speed rail
It has been more than a year since Olmsted County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced they were suspending work on Zip Rail — a proposed publicly funded high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities. Meanwhile, a private company — North American High Speed Rail Group — had proposed building a $4.2 billion, elevated high-speed rail line with private dollars. But the status of the project is in unclear, with the rail group's website suddenly disappearing and being replaced with one for "Minnesota Corridor." Meanwhile the rail group's chief strategist, Wendy Meadley, has left the company, according to her LinkedIn page.
Drazkowski sponsored a similar bill during last year's legislative session. It passed the House but stalled in the Senate. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has previously expressed concerns about bills that prohibit the use of public money for high-speed rail between Rochester and the Twin Cities, calling them "foolish."
No one testified against the bill during the House hearing.
Protecting property owners' rights
Residents who live along the proposed route say Drazkowski's bill is needed to safeguard the area's thriving agriculture.
Nora Felton, co-chairwoman of Citizens Concerned About Rail, told lawmakers the bill will protect property owners from "this elitist travel alternative." She added that the measure, "ensures this agricultural corridor is kept for its highest and best use. It is not merely some barren greenfield. It's a vibrant economy providing food security and the biodiversity that helps save the planet."