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MnDOT shuts down high-speed rail study

ST. PAUL — Environmental work on a proposed high-speed rail line from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee won’t move ahead after key Republican lawmakers objected to the state accepting federal money for the project.

Rep. Paul Torkelson

ST. PAUL — Environmental work on a proposed high-speed rail line from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee won't move ahead after key Republican lawmakers objected to the state accepting federal money for the project.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation was poised to accept a $181,682 federal grant to wrap up preliminary environmental work on the rail line. But the chairmen of the House and Senate transportation committees — Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, and Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, put the kibosh on those plans, citing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's opposition to the high-speed rail project.

"Wisconsin has made it very clear that they have no interest whatsoever in the project and for us to continue to accept federal dollars for a project that has no future is just not sensible in my book," Torkelson said.

In their roles as transportation committee chairmen, the two lawmakers serve on the state's Legislative Advisory Committee. That gives them the authority to block the state from accepting federal dollars. In December, they wrote a letter to Minnesota Management and Budget's commissioner stating their opposition to Minnesota accepting the federal money.

The state has already spent more than $1 million on the rail study, according to Dan Krom, director of MnDOT's Passenger Rail Office. The federal grant would have allowed the department to complete the study. Without those dollars, the study work needs to stop.


"We're trying to wrap it up and put it on the shelf. The downside is in five, 10 years in the future, we may have to go back and duplicate some of this effort," Krom said.

Democrats say they are dismayed Republicans blocked the state from accepting funding. Rep. Frank Hornstein, Minneapolis, is the lead Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. The Minneapolis lawmaker said it makes no sense to not finish the work based on another state's governor. He noted there is a gubernatorial election in Wisconsin next year and the state's leadership could change.

"The rest of the developed world is doing high-speed rail. There are other parts of the country that are doing high-speed rail. This is a technology that is practical and that people are using all over the world, and Minnesota should not be left behind simply because we have an anticipated or hope for electoral outcome in a neighboring state. I mean, that is absurd," Hornstein said.

He said he plans to investigate whether there is a different way for MnDOT to still get the money.

While work on the proposed high-speed rail line has stalled, MnDOT is moving ahead with a study looking at adding a second passenger rail train from the Twin Cities to Chicago. The plan would add to the existing Amtrak passenger service on the line, which makes stops in Red Wing and Winona. It would travel at conventional speeds, reaching a maximum speed of 79 miles per hour.

MnDOT is wrapping up a Phase 1 study of the route that includes putting together detailed estimates about how much it will cost to upgrade the route to accommodate a second train. To keep the project moving, MnDOT is asking lawmakers for an additional $4 million. Of that money, $1 million would go towards completing the environmental work and developing a service plan. The remaining $3 million would cover the state's share for final design costs for accommodating the second train.

Krom said MnDOT has been prioritizing work on the second train for awhile, seeing it as an important intermediate step in improving transportation service between the Twin Cities and Chicago. It's also a project that has the support of Wisconsin's governor.

"We realized there was a need to add an additional train now at regular speeds," Krom said.


Red Wing Mayor Sean Dowse said he had not been giving much thought to the proposed high-speed rail project because "it seems so far out there." Instead, he said he is focused on making sure the second passenger train becomes a reality because it will be an important boost for the city's economy.

Dowse added, "The second line seems much more feasible and much more doable in the next 10 to 20 years."

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