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Rail route decision disappoints some in Rochester

Rochester area lawmakers disappointed by MnDOT rail decision
Amtrak's Empire Builder makes a stop in Winona in May 2006. MnDOT has designated the existing Amtrak route along the Mississippi River as the preferred route for a high-speed rail line to Chicago instead of a route that includes Rochester.

A decision to bypass a proposed Rochester route for a high-speed rail line from Minneapolis to Chicago is being called short-sighted by some local lawmakers.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation instead chose the existing Amtrak route along the Mississippi River, going through Winona, Wabasha and Red Wing, as its preferred route.

Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, said it’s questionable whether 110 miles per hour — the top speed achievable on the river route — can even be considered high-speed rail.

"They clearly made a big mistake by not including Rochester," Benson said.

Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said he was not surprised by the results of the MnDOT report. The report, which was released Tuesday, required only existing rail infrastructure be considered for a possible route. With no existing rail line directly from Rochester to the Twin Cities, he said it was clear Rochester would not be part of the preferred route.


Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s Office of Passenger Rail, said the river route would serve as the first generation of high-speed rail.

But Krom said in 30 or 40 years there will be a need for faster trains and the line from Rochester to the Twin Cities could become the first segment of a new, 150 mph-plus rail line from the Twin Cities to Chicago.

"I think the Rochester folks should be excited we are looking at the next generation already of high-speed rail connecting to the Twin Cities. I think there is a huge market for that right now and we would like to continue to work with supporters," Krom said.

MnDOT is hosting an open house from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at the Winona County History Center to explain why the river route was chosen and to seek public comment.

As part of  1 1/2-year study, MnDOT considered 30 possible routes from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee. That was later narrowed to 14 routes, three of which included Rochester. The river route was determined to the be the only "reasonable and feasible" route.

A route that would have run from Winona to Rochester to Owatonna and then to the Twin Cities was deemed to have three major flaws. First, the track would have to overcome a 600-foot elevation change between Winona and Rochester. The train trip would also take about as long as it would to drive to Chicago, making it unappealing. Lastly, there were safety concerns because it would have a high number of at-grade crossings.

MnDOT plans to begin working on an Environmental Impact Statement for the river route, although more state and federal funding is needed for the $2.5-billion-plus project.

Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, said she believes the state should focus on building true high-speed rail for the future instead of upgrading an existing line to go to 110 miles per hour.


"It’s disappointing in that (the report) doesn’t address the high-speed needs in the state, nor does it address economic centers and frankly the population centers we hoped they would address," she said. "I don’t think we are going to give up. I think we will just keep working on it and hope MnDOT sees the light."


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