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Passengers load onto a regional bus operated by Rochester City Lines along 3rd Avenue SW in downtown Rochester, Minn. near the Mayo Clinic downtown campus Friday afternoon March 3, 2017. Rochester City Lines runs several buses a day to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.

Four years ago when Destination Medical Center was first announced, Rochester City Lines had a couple of buses serving commuters from the Twin Cities. Today, they have five.

"We're working to provide express-type service with fairly limited stops and the wi-fi on board to make that an attractive option," said Christian Holter, RCL's commuter services director.

RCL's growth is an example of how the number of commuters coming to Rochester has gorwn as DMC has taken hold. Charlie Reiter, Olmsted County's principal transportation planner, estimates about 35,000 people commute into Rochester every day.

"By 2040, we think that number for commuters to the city will be 52,000 to 53,000," Reiter said.

The challenge is figuring out how best to transport all of those people into the city. DMC plans call for commuter bus service to play a vital role in that endeavor. Reiter said some estimates call for an additional 80 to 120 commuter buses by 2040 — although Holter said he thinks that is a little on the high side.

RCL currently has 32 coach buses serving 35 communities across the region. Most of the cities covered are within a 45-mile radius. The farthest cities served are Bloomington and Inver Grove Heights in the Twin Cities metro. The company works with Mayo Clinic, which provides discounts to employees that ride the bus.

Looking ahead, Holter said he expects RCL's fleet of coaches to continue to grow.

"We're not necessarily looking to add any new routes per se, but what we are looking at and what we have been doing the last couple of years has been to increase the frequency along those corridors so that people can have more flexible options as they use our services," he said.

Good roads are fundamental

Also key to the city's success is making sure there are good roadways leading into the city, said Olmsted County Engineer Kaye Bieniek.

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Kaye Bieniek

"For us in Southeast Minnesota, greater Minnesota as a whole, transit is really our bus system, which means it's our roads," Bieniek said.

When lawmakers approved DMC, they authorized up to $585 million in public funding to support infrastructure upgrades — including improvements to transportation. But Bieniek said those dollars can't be used to support needed transportation upgrades in the region as a whole. That's a critical piece of the transportation puzzle.

"It doesn't help if we've got a great road that comes from Olmsted County into Winona, but then it hits Winona and it doesn't go anywhere, or it's a deteriorated road," she said.

Planners also are looking at how to best accommodate people traveling into Rochester in their cars. Reiter said based on the projected commuter numbers, the city won't be able to handle all of those drivers in its downtown. One idea is to boost the number of park and rides in the county. In some instances, those park and rides could be turned into a commuter hub that would include services such as a convenience store and child care.

There is also talk about having some parking ramps on the outskirts of downtown — like at the Olmsted County fairgrounds. The idea would be commuters could park there and hop on a trolley or elevated rail system that would take them into downtown.

Off the rails?

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For a brief, shining moment, there was very preliminary talk about a high-speed rail connection called Zip Rail between the Twin Cities and Rochester. That planning process was quickly derailed by opponents, and Rep. Steve Drazkowski, of Mazeppa, hopes to strip even the defunct name from the state's rail plan.

In recent years, there has been plenty of talk about a potential high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities. But so far, those efforts have failed to advance.

One year ago, Olmsted County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation suspended work on Zip Rail, a proposed publicly funded high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities. A private company — North American High Speed Rail Group — announced plans to privately fund a $4.2 billion high-speed rail line between Rochester and Bloomington. But the status of the project is unclear, with the rail group's website suddenly gone and replaced with one for a group called Minnesota Corridor. Records show the website domain was purchased by Wendy Meadley, former chief strategist for the North American High Speed Rail Group.

Reiter said that when it comes to rail, there have been inaccurate statements made in the past about the number of Twin Cities commuters.

"There've been comments in the past going back a number of years that we have a couple of thousand people coming from the Twin Cities that work here. There's just no evidence that's really true," Reiter said.

Instead, he said the numbers are more like 400 to 600. He said those ridership numbers would make a rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities a challenge — unless there was a connection to Chicago as well.

The DMC plan does include a proposal for a multi-modal transit system north of Central Park in downtown Rochester. If a high-speed rail line were to come to fruition, it could connect at that location.

Even with all these transportation upgrades, Reiter said there continues to be concern about Rochester's ability to attract the number of workers necessary to fill the jobs of the future. Projections call for as many as 50,000 jobs to be created during the next quarter-century in Rochester.

About 60 percent of Rochester's current workers are city residents, while the rest are commuters. The challenge is that neighboring rural counties are expected to lose population in the coming years. That will make finding enough workers a challenge.

He added, "We're still coming up with somewhat of a shortage of workers."

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Politics Reporter

Heather started at the Post Bulletin in 2005 and took on the politics beat in 2009. Prior to that, she reported on small towns in Dodge and Olmsted counties. When not working, she is likely to be found exploring Minnesota's hiking trails with her family.