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Irreconcilable: Anti-rail group redoubles efforts

Wendy Meadley, right, a spokesperson for North American High Speed Rail, answers a question about funding during a Citizens Concerned About Rail Line meeting Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, at the city hall in Pine Island, Minn.

PINE ISLAND — More than 50 people gathered Thursday at the Pine Island City Hall to oppose proposed high-speed rail projects from the Twin Cities to Rochester.

The meeting was organized by Citizens Concerned about Rail Line, a grassroots organization of residents who believe a rail line would hurt their property values and push costs onto taxpayers.

"Their concept is completely irreconcilable to us in my opinion," said Heather Arndt, a CCARL leader. "(The project) hurts — it takes, and it gives us nothing."

The meeting was the first since a recent Post-Bulletin investigation revealed the North American High Speed Rail Group, a Minnesota company pursuing elevated high-speed rail from Rochester to the Twin Cities, was seeking exclusive negotiating and air rights from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The company plans to finance the $4.2 billion rail project through private funding, including a combination of Chinese and U.S. investors. The 84-mile elevated rail line would have a train that would travel up to 280 miles per hour, allowing trips as short as 29 minutes. The exclusive rights would be for portions of Interstate 494, Minnesota Highway 55, U.S. Highway 52, U.S. Highway 63 and Interstate 90.


Arndt called the plans "disturbing." "If we're going to trust MnDOT, signing a document with this group (before a study is completed) muddies the water," Arndt said.

Wendy Meadley, the rail group's spokeswoman, attended the event and fielded questions.

She argued the group's proposal is very different than the Zip Rail proposal that has been pushed by the state for years. She said the rail group wants to fund it privately and that it's still a Minnesota company.

"We're doing something new that has never been done before in America," Meadley said.

While the project is in the preliminary stages, the rail group wants the exclusive rights so it can determine if the project is economically viable, she said.

"This is early on — we haven't even started to study," Meadley said. "We're not trying to hide anything from people."

Legal rules prohibited her from being able to share details before, she said, but now, she can talk openly about it.

The rail group is looking only at the U.S. Highway 52 route, which is more direct than the Zip Rail proposal that also involved U.S. Highway 56, she said.


Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski, of Mazeppa, DFL Sen. Matt Schmit, of Red Wing, and Goodhue Commissioners Dan Rechtzigel and Ted Seifert also spoke at the meeting and fielded questions.

CCARL members voiced a diverse range of concerns: A project will benefit only Rochester. Eminent domain will be used to take away some of their property. Their property values will drop. Taxpayers will have to pay for construction costs or clean up if it fails.

Members said having to learn about the plans from an investigation now makes them fear MnDOT and the rail group will simply go around the public process and approve the plan.

Rechtzigel said the project was started without consideration for those who would be caught in the middle.

Schmit said good information gathering is needed to make a determination on the project. But he said the process would not be allowed to go forward if it will harmed communities in the corridor.

"The train has not left the station on this project," Schmit said.

He said he and many lawmakers are skeptical the project will come to fruition.

Drazkowski said he is confident the project will fail, either in not getting funding or after it is built. He said he introduced legislation to prevent public funding of Zip Rail and prevent taxpayers from being stuck with the cost if it fails.


Several members expressed serious concern that a U.S. infrastructure project would involve Chinese investors. When asked, Meadley confirmed Chinese government funds will be part of the possible funding, but added that planners sought funding from several sovereign funds.

"I think it's a very, very, very legitimate concern, and I'll leave it at that," Drazkowski said.

Earlier in the meeting, he said any issues with air rights leasing would be compounded if they were controlled by a foreign government.

One man noted the group is seeking to extend to Chicago but Wisconsin previously opposes federal funding for high-speed rail. After the meeting, Meadley said the group's initial discussions with Wisconsin officials indicated the state would be receptive to the project because it doesn't involve taxpayer money.

Opposition efforts

Arndt told CCARL members to remain focused and active in opposing both rail proposals. She said they had made gains in recent months. The group has obtained more than 1,800 signatures for a petition opposing the projects.

"The whole game changed after the Kenyon meeting. So, you can really change the process," Arndt said.

The original Zip Rail proposal is undergoing a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement process. The rail group's proposal will need its own impact statement if it proceeds.


"That's one of the pieces officially still in play with MnDOT," Arndt said. "We need to stay focused to make sure it is done honestly, completely and thoroughly."

She said she believes a fair review of a rail project's effect will result in a "No Build" determination because of the presence of karst areas and a sinkhole plain along U.S. 52. She said issues with karst areas derailed the Powder River Basin bypass.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said exclusive rights will not be granted to the rail group without his approval. He said he wants to consult with lawmakers before making any decisions.

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