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County closing rail grant early

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Olmsted County's investment in investigating a high-speed rail project is winding down. The county's Board of Commissioners on Thursday approved up to $175,000 in expenditures to the project for 2015, but anticipated little spending in 2016.

The county had been working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation under a $2 million grant to study the financial and environmental effects of a high-speed rail line, or Zip Rail, between Rochester and the Twin Cities; the county's share of the grant was about $300,000, said Richard Devlin, county administrator, at a Thursday county board meeting.

The county requested up to $75,000 to provide the requisite matching funds to the grant for this year's work, and with that, the grant-funded work would conclude, Devlin said.

"We're asking for between $50,000 and $75,000 to help close out the year, closing the grant early from the state of Minnesota," Devlin told the board.

Asked by board member Sheila Kiscaden how much investment in the rail project the county anticipated next year, Devlin said it would not be much at all.

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The county has made an annual transfer of funds to the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority, between $80,000 and $100,000 each year since 2010, Devlin told the Post-Bulletin. The rail authority, made up of county board members, could have instated a tax levy but instead chose to annually transfer funds from the county's contingency account.

Monies paid to the rail authority in the last year have gone mostly to the studies surrounding the high-speed rail project — including a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement — and to pay its primary consultant on the project, Chuck Michael, Devlin said.

MnDOT officials in October said the department would consider suspending work on the project at the conclusion of the environmental study, in order to allow a private group to pursue the project without public support.

The North American High Speed Rail Group, a private company, has estimated the project to cost upward of $4 billion and has been seeking foreign investors .

North American High Speed Rail Group did not return a Post-Bulletin request to comment on whether the group would attempt to take on state grant funding to continue the project-related studies.

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