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P-B Dialogues: Zip Rail questions left unanswered

As the Zip Rail planning process kicks off public meetings this week, the community still has a lot of questions – but many of them don’t have answers yet, namely how much the high-speed rail connecting Rochester and the Twin Cities will cost,...

The Zip Rail planning process kicks off public meetings this week, and the community still has a lot of questions.

But many of them don't have answers yet, namely how much the high-speed rail connecting Rochester and the Twin Cities will cost, who will fund it or where exactly it will be built.

Community members at a Post-Bulletin Dialogues event Monday evening had a chance to ask Zip Rail Project Manager Chuck Michael, Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown, state Rep. Kim Norton and Rochester City Council President Randy Staver about the proposed project. The conversation was moderated by Post-Bulletin Managing Editor Jay Furst.

Zip Rail has been in talks since about 1991, but only got serious in 2009, when the federal government announced a vision of passenger rails serving the country, Michael said. Zip Rail now is in the Tier 1 environmental impact study phase, which is expected to be completed by mid-2015, he said. A scoping booklet of the Tier 1 study and investment plan for the project can be found online at goziprail.org .

"We're very high level," Michael said of the Tier 1 stage. "We're not getting down really on the ground that much."


The plan has two potential corridors, one along U.S. 52 and another near Minnesota Highway 56. Michael said the planners are looking to get as much feedback as possible on the routes during public meetings planned this week in Rochester, Inver Grove Heights and Kenyon.

Barry Skolnick said he once was told it would take 30 years before a train was actually on the tracks and operating.

"Could you give me an estimate, best case scenario, when the train would actually pull into the station?" Skolnick asked.

After the Tier 1 phase is over, a Tier 2 environmental impact study will take place, expected to last about four years, Michael said.

The actual construction of the rail line would probably take five to seven years, Brown said.

Filling commuter need

The trip between Rochester and the Twin Cities would take between 45 and 50 minutes, with speeds potentially reaching 180 mph, Michael said. The trip between the two cities usually takes about 90 minutes by car.

"How do you get Ma, Pa and a couple kids out of the car … when they're saving 45 minutes?" Ray Schmitz asked. "It seems to me your marketing is going to be a real challenge."


But the main population the rail would serve are those who commute from the Minneapolis area to Rochester for work, Michael said.

"It's not intended to be all things to all people," he said. "There is a limited market, but that limited market is in the tens of thousands."

The cost of using the Zip Rail as opposed to driving to the Twin Cities doesn't factor in all costs, such as parking and future fuel costs, Norton said.

"We're assuming gas prices as they are now when we talk about cost effectiveness," Norton said. "As gas becomes less plentiful, that will not be the case."

Convincing other counties

There's a bit of animosity among other cities because of the amount of money Rochester received to fund the Destination Medical Center initiatives, Norton said. How the city and county use that money can work to their advantage, she said.

"You will build goodwill if part of that money and initiative and energy is spent connecting the Twin Cities area (into that money)," Norton said.

Using that big-picture idea can be a way to convince smaller communities along the rail line that the project is worth the time, money and effort, Norton said. While the rail would be a direct Rochester to Twin Cities route, it could potentially function as a commuter train with multiple stops during nonpeak times in the future, she said.


"It isn't all or nothing. This discussion is something that has to happen moving forward. … It may not be both from day one, but that discussion needs to happen right now," Norton said.


While there's no solid cost estimate, Brown said the project will likely cost a couple billion dollars. Michael was less direct with his answer to the cost question.

"We don't know because we don't have a route yet," Michael said.

The project already is attracting private interests, Brown said, though he could not say who those private interests are.

There aren't any high-speed passenger rails in the U.S., but the concepts are popular overseas, especially in Asia, Michael said.

Because of the outside interests, funds from the state and federal governments might not be needed, Norton said.

"There are many, many manufacturers who would love to come to this country and build one here," Michael said. "I think we can take somewhat of an advantage of that … being the first one out of the starting block. Everyone wants to win."



Zip Rail public meetings:


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Rochester Community and Technical College, Heintz Center Commons Area

1926 College View Road East, Rochester

Inver Grove Heights


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Inver Grove Community Center, Community Room 2


Thursday, July 31, 2014

5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Kenyon-Wanamingo High School, Commons Area and Auditorium

400 6th Street, Kenyon


A scoping booklet of the Zip Rail project can be found online at goziprail.org .

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