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Private company gets permits to study high-speed rail route

A private company's efforts to build a high-speed rail line linking Rochester to the Twin Cities are steaming ahead as state and Olmsted County officials are expected to suspend work on Zip Rail next week.

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Dan Krom, Minnesota Department of Transportation
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A private company's efforts to build a high-speed rail line linking Rochester to the Twin Cities are steaming ahead as state and Olmsted County officials are expected to suspend work on Zip Rail next week.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation announced Wednesday it would stop work on the Zip Rail project , pending a vote by the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority on Tuesday. A resolution before the county board would suspend work on the Zip Rail project "for the indefinite future," citing the private-sector efforts. MnDOT also revealed it had approved miscellaneous work permits for the North American High Speed Rail Group , allowing the private company to move ahead with a feasibility study along the proposed high-speed rail corridor.

"We feel fortunate to be able to be in this position that we get to study this, that we get to see if it's possible," said Wendy Meadley, the rail group's chief manager.

The rail group is seeking to build a $4.2 billion, elevated high-speed rail from Rochester to the Twin Cities that would be funded by U.S. and Chinese investors. The company's plan also calls for doing commercial development that would be tied into the rail line. A privately funded rail line has yet to be built in North America.

Earlier this week, MnDOT released the Alternatives Analysis Report , which recommended eight potential corridors for the publicly funded high-speed rail line be considered for future study. But with no federal or state dollars available for the project, official say it makes sense to suspend work on the project.

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"It just seems like the natural point to put a pause on it," said Dan Krom, director of MnDOT's passenger rail office.

Krom estimates that completing the next phase of the project — a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement — could cost upwards of $60 million. As such, he said it makes sense to let the private company decide if it wants to move ahead with a project of its own.

"Anytime we can leverage private sector investments in infrastructure in Minnesota, it's worth us taking it into consideration," Krom said.

The work permits issued by MnDOT to the rail group are valid from Feb. 1 to July 1. They allow the company to do non-intrusive activities in the right-of-way of Interstate 494, Minnesota Highway 55, U.S. Highway 52 and U.S. Highway 63, according to Bryan Dodds, director of MnDOT's Office of Land Management.

Meadley said the company's feasibility study will involve economic modeling, basic engineering work and environmental analysis.

"We're at step one where we can study to see if it's going to be a go or a no-go," she said.

The feasibility study will be funded by a group of private businesses with an interest in high-speed rail. That group does not include Mayo Clinic. Meadley said the company also plans to meet with residents along the route to talk about the proposal and gather input.

As for the study work completed for the Zip Rail project, Meadley said it's really of little value for the company. She said the rail group's project is very different than the public proposal, so they will need to start from scratch with their own analysis.

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Not everyone is pleased to work on a possible high-speed rail line continuing. Goodhue County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel said he remains fiercely opposed to high-speed rail along U.S. 52. He said he believe it will hurt his constituents and will fail, leaving taxpayers holding the bag.

"Whether it's public or private, my position hasn't changed. I'm committed to destroying this project as quickly as possible with extreme prejudice," he said.

But others welcomed news that the rail group had decided to begin studying the corridor. Rochester DFL Rep. Kim Norton said she is excited at the thought of a high-speed rail line linking Rochester to the Twin Cities.

"I just think the possibilities are endless. There are strong economies in both sectors, but also they are two population hubs that can provide employees to a variety of businesses," she said.

The publicly funded Zip Rail was projected to create more than 11,000 new jobs and more than $1.6 billion in increased economic output, according to MnDOT.

Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said he is pleased the private rail group received the work permits. He said he expects there will be support on the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority to pass the resolution and suspend work on Zip Rail.

"I don't expect any push back on that (resolution)," Brown said. "There's no public money and the permits are done, so hopefully the private enterprise will come on board and move forward."

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