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Area leaders discuss high-speed rail options

RED WING — More than 50 elected officials from Minnesota and Wisconsin gathered in La Crosse, Wis., recently to drum up support for high-speed rail along a river route that would connect the Twin Cities to Madison, Wis., by 2015.

The proposed high-speed rail would run along an existing rail line near the Mississippi River and is one of two routes being considered by Wisconsin officials. The other proposed route would run between St. Paul and Eau Claire, Wis., though it's unclear whether it would hook up with Madison nearly 200 miles to the southeast of Eau Claire.

The debate in Minnesota about where to build high-speed rail is essentially on hold until Wisconsin's decision is made, said Red Wing Mayor John Howe. However, it's clear what he prefers.

"We certainly feel the river route is the best route," said Howe, who is a member of the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission, which meets monthly in Red Wing. "There's a 4-to-1 payback."

From Howe's perspective, the river route has four advantages:


• It makes sense environmentally since rail is already in place.

• Track improvements would benefit current freight transportation.

• It would lead to a commuter option.

• It would be more time- and cost-efficient to upgrade rather than build from scratch.

Rochester has often been mentioned as an alternative to Minnesota's river route. While Howe doesn't believe a Rochester route has as much to offer, it remains under consideration.

Minnesota received $600,000 in federal stimulus money this month to do an environmental impact study of the project.

Once Wisconsin makes its decision — transportation department secretary Frank Busalacchi says a study is being formulated — then MnDOT officials will be able to chart their own path. It's unclear how soon Wisconsin will decide between Eau Claire and La Crosse.

 "We do need the Minnesota Department of Transportation to make a recommendation, a data-driven recommendation, and then we can make our case to the transportation officials," Howe said.

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