A proposal for a high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities is being met with skepticism from some Rochester legislative candidates.
House District 26B Republican candidate Nels Pierson, of Rochester, said before he commits to seeking additional state dollars for the next phase of the proposed Zip Rail project, he would like more information.
"I'm a little bit skeptical on ridership numbers and whether or not the line is something that can be sustainable," Pierson said. "But if there is a business case that can be demonstrated that makes it happen, then that's something we should consider."
Pierson added he is "somewhat supportive" of a current environmental study underway and believes government has a role to play in providing access to transportation. It's an issue Pierson said he's been hearing plenty about when he is door knocking or attending township meetings.
Under the proposal, Zip Rail trains would travel up to 220 mph between Rochester and the Twin Cities. A Tier 1 environmental impact study for the project is underway to determine two possible routes for the railway — one along U.S. 52 and another near Minnesota Highway 56. The results of that study are expected in mid-2015.
The project has drawn sharp criticism in recent weeks from some city and county government officials along the possible Zip Rail routes. Republican state Rep. Pat Garofalo, of Farmington,recently announced he plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit the project from moving forward in the state, calling it a "California-style boondoggle."
But the effort to bring a high-speed rail line has the strong support of the city of Rochester, Olmsted County, Mayo Clinic and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. The four entities partnered in 2008 to form the Southern Minnesota Rail Alliance to push for Zip Rail. Olmsted County's No. 1 request for state funding this year was $15 million for the project, although the Legislature did not approve it. Those dollars would have been used to leverage up to $60 million in federal dollars to complete an Environmental Impact Statement.
Of the four candidates in contested races, only House District 26B candidate Rich Wright, of Rochester, voiced firm support for the Zip Rail proposal. With Mayo Clinic's expansion as part of Destination Medical Center expected to create 35,000 jobs over the next 20 years, Wright said it is especially important to invest in passenger rail.
"It will be good for us to have different modes of transportation to get people here to the DMC," he said.
Wright said he also believes there is a way to address some of the concerns being expressed by rural residents. One option would be to consider running an express train on the line that would not make stops between Rochester and the Twin Cities and another train that would make stops along the way.
Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said she supports studying the Zip Rail proposal and investing in alternative forms of transportation. She does have concerns about whether this proposal would be sustainable given the estimated $30 one-way ticket price and 45-minute commute time.
"It's important we explore ways to move people faster and more efficiently between here and the metro. We absolutely need to do that," Liebling said. "Whether this particular proposal as it stands now is the right one, I'm not really sure. Time will tell."
Liebling said she would be willing to seek additional state dollars to continue studying the project. She also likes the idea of considering other options, including a recent suggestion to build a monorail from Rochester to the Twin Cities. She said she would like to learn more about that idea.
Liebling's opponent, Republican Breanna Bly, said she definitely supports continued discussion about the Zip Rail project. But before she would be willing to back the project, Bly said she wants answers to some key questions, including the project's cost and its impact on taxpayers and Rochester's airport. She would oppose any legislation that would prohibit the project from moving ahead.
"I am for the discussion to continue. I know that there have been some that have put forward a moratorium on it, and I would not be in favor of a moratorium," Bly said. "I think we need to listen and have the discussion."