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Report zeroes in on eight possible high-speed rail routes

Eight potential corridors for a proposed Rochester-to Twin Cities high-speed rail line are recommended for additional study in a report released on Monday.

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Eight potential corridors for a proposed Rochester-to-Twin Cities high-speed rail line are recommended for additional study in a report released on Monday.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation released the "Alternatives Analysis Report." The report winnows down a list of 46 possible Zip Rail routes to eight. It also requires a no-build option be considered. But with no additional funding available and a private developer interested in building a high-speed rail line, MnDOT officials say this may be a good time to stop public work on the project. North American High Speed Rail Group has said it's interested in building a $4.2 billion elevated high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities.

"If (the private group) is going to be moving forward, we should not be doing a parallel effort. Even though their project is different, I don't think it's a good investment of our limited resources if there is a private-sector group out there that is looking at it," said Dan Krom, director of MnDOT's passenger rail office.

North American High Speed Rail Group is in the process of applying for a right-of-way permit from MnDOT to study the corridor. Wendy Meadley, the rail group's chief manager, was not immediately available for comment.

A total of $2.3 million was set aside for the first phase of the environmental analysis. Those dollars have been used up, Krom said.

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While there is no money to continue environmental work on the corridors, Krom said the Alternatives Analysis Report has a shelf life of between three to five years. The report recommends essential two main routes between Rochester and the Twin Cities be considered — along U.S. Highway 52 or Minnesota Highway 56 and U.S. Highway 14. The routes include two potential end points in the Twin Cities — Union Depot in St. Paul and Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport.

Route lengths range from 77 miles to 93 miles with one-way travel times estimated to be as little as 40 minutes and as much as 53 minutes. Those estimates assume that high-speed rail speed in rural areas would reach 186 miles-per-hour. Estimated ridership numbers vary from 700,000 to nearly 870,000. Routes were analyzed by looking at several factors including travel time, impact on existing development and the environment and possible conflicts with freight traffic. Krom said officials plan to discuss the results with members of the Zip Rail Community Advisory Committee and the Zip Rail Technical Advisory Committee on Thursday.

Zip Rail critics charge the state is trying to avoid public comment on a completed Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement by stopping work now. The Alternatives Analysis Report is not subject to a public comment period. Heather Arndt co-leader of Citizens Concerned About Rail Line , said work on the report has taken far too long.

"I think they are playing games to intentional stop citizen input," Arndt said.

Krom said work on the project took longer than planned because it requires new rail lines to be built instead of being able to take advantage of existing railroads. That makes the project unusual compared to other high-speed rail proposals in the state.

"It is unique. The other projects use existing lines. There is a lot more support I would say on those projects because people are used to trains being there. And I think it makes the development process a lot less cumbersome, too and less costly," he said.

Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said it appears likely that public work on the project will cease, and it will be up to North American High Speed Rail to make high-speed rail between Rochester and the Twin Cities a reality.

"It's not going to happen any other way. This will not be a public project. Can't afford it. Nobody's got the money," he said.

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Brown added that he believes the money spent so far on environmental analysis was worthwhile. He said that work helped raise the visibility of the project, helping to attract the interest of the private sector.

He added, "That work won't be wasted. It won't disappear. It will be used by the group that takes it over and runs with it."

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