Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Private rail group's goals include link to Chicago

The ambitions of a private company seeking to build a high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities stretch from Minnesota to Chicago and beyond.

Proposed routes of a proposed high-speed rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities.

The ambitions of a private company seeking to build a high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities stretch from Minnesota to Chicago and beyond.

The North American High Speed Rail Group wants to connect the Twin Cities to Chicago via a high-speed rail line, according to documents and emails obtained by the Post-Bulletin from MnDOT under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

The group's spokeswoman, Wendy Meadley, confirmed the company is looking at the possibility of extending high-speed rail to Chicago once an elevated line is completed from Rochester to the Twin Cities. In fact, Meadley was in Chicago on Tuesday meeting with key individuals about the idea.

"This isn't a new concept, and Chicago is highly interested," Meadley said. "We have had a number of conversations in Chicago."

The company is seeking to do something never done in the United States before — build and operate a high-speed rail line entirely with private funding. The group plans to fund the $4.2 billion Rochester to Twin Cities high-speed rail line through a combination of Chinese and U.S. investors. It wants to build an 84-mile elevated rail line with train speeds up to 280 miles per hours that could make the trip in as little as 29 minutes. As part of the project, the rail group would develop real estate that ties into the rail line.


Before the company moves ahead with the project in Minnesota, it wants exclusive rights to lease air space on highways for the line. Specifically, it wants exclusive negotiating rights for two years for air space along portions of Interstate 494, Minnesota Highway 55, U.S. Highway 52, U.S. Highway 63 and Interstate 90. The process has taken longer than the company expected and, as such, Meadley said it has been in talks with others about developing high-speed rail corridors in other parts of the country.

"We're trying to get that first project to life and, honestly, we'd love to say it happened in Minnesota because we're Minnesotans," Meadley said.

A call for openness

The governor's office has said Gov. Mark Dayton would need to approve the exclusive negotiating rights for leasing air space, and he wants to consult with lawmakers before moving ahead.

Some lawmakers said they've been left in the dark when it comes to the proposed projects and are frustrated.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he did not know about the air lease rights request or the group's hopes to extend high-speed rail to Chicago.

"It just seems to me, almost as a courtesy, that if this is real, they ought to at least tell us who they are and give us the assurance that they have the wherewithal to do this, and if they don't have that wherewithal, why let's just call a big timeout and be done with this," Senjem said.

Meadley said she understands the frustration some have about the lack of information available about the project, but she added it's important to remember it is still in the early stages.


"I know the public feels we've been secretive. We're really actually at such an early time. The project doesn't exist yet. We're trying to get a project to life, and it's complex," Meadley said.

An ambitious timeline and world's fair

Emails obtained by the Post-Bulletin show the company has outlined an ambitious timeline for constructing the proposed high-speed rail route.

Rail group CEO Joe Sperber writes to Minnesota Department of Transportation Chief of Staff Eric Davis in an April 13 email that if MnDOT and the governor signed off on the group's request for exclusive rights to lease air space by the end of the month, construction on train stations could begin in the fall of 2015, and work on the rail project itself could begin by mid-2016.

That approval did not happen, but it highlights the group's urgency to get started on the project. Meadley said if the state were to grant the company the negotiating rights to the air space in the next couple of months, it would be possible to have the high-speed rail line up and running in time for 2023 — the year Minnesota hopes to host the world's fair.

Former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is heading up the effort to bring the world's fair to Minnesota, as CEO and president of Expo 2023 Minnesota . He also serves on the North American High Speed Rail Group's Advisory Board. He said having the high-speed rail in place would be an extra draw for the estimated 10 million to 20 million people who would come to the fair.

"Having an opportunity for truly cutting-edge technology to be birthed and be kind of first born here in Minnesota that will eventually be throughout North America is an exciting story and, of course, it would be something that many people would be interested in seeing and experiencing," Ritchie said.

Meetings with key leaders


Company officials have met with some big names in transportation, according to emails obtained by the Post-Bulletin. Rail group leadership met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx last summer.

They also have met with Federal Railroad Administration Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg. In Minnesota, company officials have had three meeting with MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle since July 2014, according to email records.The company's business plan states that representatives have also met with key public and private development organizations in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada, Washington, D.C., and Washington state.

The Olmsted County Board has expressed its support for the rail group's proposal to MnDOT. Board Chairman Paul Wilson sent a letter on behalf of the board to Dayton and Zelle in March urging them to take the group's proposal seriously.

"We view NAHSR's approach worthy of serious consideration with the potential to contribute significantly to the economic expansion in Minnesota while serving our region's increasing transportation needs for generations to come," Wilson writes.

High-speed rail to Chicago

The idea of connecting Rochester to Chicago via high-speed rail has long been talked about locally. Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said she was first asked about the idea when she ran for the Minnesota Senate in 1992. Back then, she said the concern centered on having another option for bringing patients to Mayo Clinic, as short airplane trips became less profitable and airlines started reducing flights to Rochester.

More than 20 years later, Kiscaden said the challenge of making sure patients can get to Mayo Clinic remains — coupled with a labor shortage.

"If we can't bring the patients in easily or we can't bring the staff in easily, that's a vulnerability that our community has. It makes us vulnerable," she said.


The idea of trying to connect the Twin Cities to Chicago via Rochester is likely to generate some concern among supporters of building a high-speed rail line along the "River Route," which runs through Winona and Red Wing to the Twin Cities. Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission Chairwoman Janice Rettman said in an emailed statement that her organization has not been contacted by the rail group about their goal to extend service to Chicago via Rochester.

"The MN High Speed Rail Commission strongly advocates for the development of a high-speed rail line within the federally designated high-speed rail corridor that connects the Twin Cities to Milwaukee and Chicago," said Rettman, a Ramsey County commissioner.

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said many residents in his district have a lot of anxiety about the rail group's proposal, and he is disappointed by the lack of communication surrounding the proposal. He added the River Route has been designated by both MnDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration as the preferred line for a high-speed rail line to Chicago. He has introduced a bill that would require a high-speed rail line to Chicago be built in the river corridor.

He added, "It's an important point to make because we can't just overnight, willy nilly decide that there's a different route for high-speed rail in Minnesota."

What To Read Next
Get Local