Fireworks erupt at Zip Rail meeting in Kenyon
KENYON — Zip Rail representatives traveled to Kenyon on Thursday night and were greeted by an ornery crowd of nearly 400 at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School.
It was the fourth area meeting of the week on the proposed high-speed rail connecting Rochester to the Twin Cities, but the first in which many rural residents of Dodge and Goodhue counties weighed in. People packed the auditorium and let project manager Chuck Michael have it during a biting, free-flowing exchange that went an hour over the scheduled time — and could have gone much longer had the school's janitorial staff not stepped in to clear out the building.
Michael, who led much milder discussions earlier this week in Rochester and Inver Grove Heights, was able to keep his sense of humor while being put through what one audience member described as a "buzzsaw" of questions and critiques.
"I'm not seeing anyone raising their hand to trade places with me," Michael said.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, was among those who implored citizens to attend the meeting and voice their concerns regarding the project, which carries an unknown price tag and remains years away from fruition — if it ever becomes reality. The issues raised by citizens were varied, but most centered around one main theme: How is this project going to benefit anyone outside of Olmsted County and the Twin Cities? The questions echoed a point previously made by Dodge County Commissioner Steven Gray.
'Raped and pillaged'
Zip Rail officials are seeking public opinion, as part of the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement, to help select a preferred route for the train, which would reach speeds of 220 mph. Eight potential paths are being considered that would connect a terminal in downtown Rochester with a northern hub at the Minneapolis International Airport and/or the Union Depot in St. Paul.
The proposed paths either parallel U.S. 52 or Minnesota Highway 56 and would involve acquisition private land through eminent domain. That issue inflamed rural residents, many of whom have fought similar legal battles in recent years over CapX2020 transmission lines and wind turbine projects.
"I can't believe these people," said Greg Soule, a Goodhue County resident who collected a list of about 50 names after the meeting to start a Zip Rail opposition group. "It's like they want us to be their donkeys and not get a thing for it."
"It appears this area is OK to be raped and pillaged by large (projects)," added Nora Bryson Felton, who is running for Goodhue County commissioner this fall.
Michael and Minnesota Department of Transportation official Garneth Peterson attempted to explain the need for the project to an unreceptive crowd. Michael said 40,000 employees commute to Rochester on a daily basis, and that number is expected to grow to 70,000 by 2034, thanks to Destination Medical Center.
Rochester also gets up to 3 million visitors per year, a figure that's projected to double in the next 20 years.
"It's really important to think about transportation as fueling that growth," Peterson said. "Economic growth can't happen if people can't get there."
Hader farmer Heather Arndt, who said she's spent 100 hours studying Zip Rail in the past two months, offered a withering critique of those numbers. If the Zip Rail is aimed at daily commuters with one-way tickets costing about $30, a full year on that system would cost more than $14,000 and would simply cut the commute time roughly in half.
Michael then asked Arndt to summarize the rest of her point, which drew the crowd's ire. She continued for nearly 10 more minutes before receiving a standing ovation from many in the audience and setting the tone for the rest of the night.
'Back to the drawing board'
Drazkowski and Goodhue County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel were more succinct in their criticism, but no less pointed. Rechtzigel said placing the rail parallel to Highway 56 would require blocking off 24 intersections, while the U.S. 52 option would mean blocking more than 40.
"You're asking a lot for no real reward in Goodhue County," said Rechtzigel, a K-W teacher. "It will benefit Rochester and the Twin Cites, and that's fine — until you start blocking off our roads."
Added Drazkowski: "I think it's time to go back to the drawing board."
Many were frustrated by Michael's inexact responses. One citizen sarcastically thanked the project manager for actually answering his first question — more than two hours into the meeting.
Michael acknowledged the frustration, but said many of the answers sought by the public will be discovered only after further studies are completed.
"It's a bit early in the process and that's a frustrating thing," Michael said. "We prefer not to guess too much because we might be wrong."