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Group brings anti-zip rail message to MNDOT meeting

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KENYON — A pair of representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation were on hand to talk about the State Multimodal Transportation Plan and the State Highway Investment Plan at Kenyon High School on Thursday night.

But the crowd was more interested in talking about a proposed Rochester to Minneapolis high-speed rail project, sometimes called Zip Rail.

Josh Pearson with MnDOT's statewide planning office said the passenger rail project faces an uphill funding battle. "Right now, the need for 20 years is $36.4 billion," he said. "We only have a budget of around $20 billion." And inflation is eating that up faster than the $36.4 billion estimate would indicate.

This was good news to organizers of Thursday's event, Citizens Concerned About Rail Line, or CCARL. Heather Arndt with CCARL said she is hopeful the group behind the rail project is finally out of state and local funding after getting $2 million from a state grant in 2014 to study the project's feasibility. A Tier I study to determine potential routes and check the environmental impact has yet to be completed, she said.

"They have been saying for a while now they are out of money, and they never finished it," said Arndt, who lives in Belle Creek Township, which would be along the potential rail corridor in Goodhue County. "For all of 2015, we were wondering what money they were running on."

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Arndt and her group have several problems with the project, she said. First, if the project does not run along the public right-of-way between lanes of U.S. Highway 52, then the state and any private partners would need to invoke eminent domain laws to get the right of way for the rail line. "We are not somebody that they can just disregard and take our property," she said.

Another complaint Arndt made was that the state is not being transparent about its plans and any information it has uncovered. Finally, the passenger rail plan would be a financial boondoggle, she said. And that makes little sense when transportation dollars are already looking tight well into the next two decades.

After the MnDOT presentation, the crowd seemed uniform in its concern that with transportation dollars already short of the state's projected need of $36.4 billion over 20 years, spending money on passenger rail was unnecessary.

"This is a really costly project, and the costs are mounting," said John Meyer of Stewartville.

Meyer, who has attended several meetings on the topic, said the state's own plans show that U.S. Highway 52 is more than adequate to handle traffic between Rochester and the Twin Cities. "Their own plans show it can handle 37,000 cars per day," he said. "And once it's all controlled access, it goes up to 70,000."

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said he has asked the MnDOT commissioner and engineers to come down to his district and answer more technical details about any passenger rail projects. "We won't get railroaded by any project that is not ready for prime time," he said.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, chairman of the transportation committee, said right now, everything with the passenger rail project looks to be on hold. A private organization has asked for a permit to do soil borings, but that permit has not been granted.

"When we go into the session this March, we will not hear new bills," he said. "We'll be putting together the transportation package that's a result of last year's bills."

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None of that, though, satisfies Arndt and CCARL. "If you wait until they knock on your door, it's too late," she said. "Right from the start, they've done the bare legal minimum."

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