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Future of private high-speed rail project uncertain

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Wendy Meadley, a spokesperson for North American High Speed Rail, speaks to the crowd during a Citizens Concerned About Rail Line meeting Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, at the city hall in Pine Island, Minn.
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Those looking for an answer to whether private investors will build a high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities will just have to keep on waiting.

Wendy Meadley, who has been overseeing the rail project work, said Tuesday that no final decision has been made on whether to move ahead with the project, but she said there are several investors who remain interested in supporting it.

"There are private investors that are pursuing high-speed rail — passenger and freight services — connecting the Twin Cities and Rochester, with momentum," Meadley said.

It has been two-and-a-half months since North American High Speed Rail Group hosted representatives of China Railway International in Minnesota. The company wants to do something never before done in the U.S. — privately build a high-speed rail line. The plan calls for a $4.2 billion, elevated high-speed rail line to link Rochester and Bloomington. Most of the rail line would be built in the median of U.S. 52.

Meadley said no legal agreement has been reached with China Railway International to build the high-speed rail project. However, she said negotiations are ongoing to find a technology partner, and the Chinese company is still in the running. She said the company has decided not to extend its two work permits issued by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which expire Dec. 1. Those permits allowed the company to do non-intrusive activities in highway right-of-ways. Meadley said the company has collected all the geographic and topographic information it needs so the permits are no longer necessary.

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In order for the project to advance to the feasibility stage, Meadley has said that $50 million needs to be raised from U.S. investors. The project did get a high-profile boost in September during the Chinese delegation's visit when Destination Medical Center's Executive Director Lisa Clarke expressed support for the high-speed rail effort.

But the high-speed rail project is likely to face some push back at the Minnesota Capitol next year. Republicans will be in control of both the Senate and House, and many are wary of rail projects. Sen.-elect Mike Goggin, R-Red Wing, pledged during his campaign that the first bill he will introduce in January will be aimed at blocking the project.

Goggin said he wants to make sure no public money is spent on the project. He also wants to pass legislation to prevent eminent domain from being used to acquire land for the project. His bill will require the rail company to set up a decommissioning fund to ensure that if the project fails, taxpayers aren't stuck paying for it.

"There is not going to be any government money spent on this project. If they are going to somehow be able to do this, it is going to be on their own dime," Goggin said.

The project has faced fierce opposition from rural communities along the U.S. 52 corridor. Residents have expressed concern about the potential use of eminent domain and how that would impact farmers, small business owners and homeowners.

Rochester DFL Rep. Kim Norton said she is confused why some are opposing the project even though it would be funded entirely with private money. She said there clearly is a need for the high-speed rail line.

"We have two of the largest economic centers in the state with large and growing populations that could benefit from having fast, high-speed access to each other. And getting cars off the road and lowering the carbon footprint isn't a bad addition. It's icing on the cake," Norton said.

Meadley said there is still plenty of confusion surrounding the high-speed rail project. She attended a candidate forum in Cannon Falls before the election about high-speed rail and said there was a lot of misinformation.

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"It seemed dissonant to me to be listening to candidates sharing their opinions on a project that they never contacted the conveners for facts or their perspective — so on this very important issue to their constituents they seemed to be relying on guesswork and speculation," she said.

At this point, no recently elected lawmakers have reached out to her to learn more about the project. However, Meadley said rail supporters plan to connect with these future legislators. As for the upcoming legislative session, Meadley said, "We are confident that the Legislature will continue to encourage significant job growth in our region."

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