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State will study rail options in region

MANTORVILLE — Olmsted and Dodge counties will soon be parties to three rail studies coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Dave Christensen, a senior planner with MnDOT who also is project manager for the state rail plan, discussed the studies Tuesday during a meeting of the Dodge County Railroad Authority in Mantorville.

The studies include:

• The southern bypass rail route and other possible routes to redirect freight around Rochester, including a "no-build" option. Requests for proposals for a consultant will be published around Feb 1. The study should begin in April and be complete in about one year. The bypass concept has been studied in recent years, but Christensen stressed that this study will conform to Federal Railroad Administration standards and could, therefore, be used to apply for federal funds.

• The high-speed rail route between Rochester and the Twin Cities. Requests for proposals and completion dates are the same as for the bypass route. The study will be conducted by a different consultant but with the same two project managers: Chuck Michael of Olmsted County and Peter Dahlberg, principal transportation planner in MnDOT’s office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations.


• The Regional Freight Study for District 6. Reviewed will be river traffic, industrial trends, silica sand transport, businesses, products, the Interstate 35 corridor and the river corridor. This study will, coincidentally, cross-check data gathered through the other two studies for this area, Christensen said. 

The consultants will be chosen by a technical advisory committee, members of which include representatives from MnDOT and local people experienced in state bid solicitation. The committee would probably include the Olmsted and Dodge county engineers, said Christensen.

After the consultants are chosen, citizen advisory committees would be formed. Anyone is welcome to join and offer their ideas on the two studies.

Olmsted County Board Chairman Ken Brown focused his remarks on the proposed high-speed train route between Rochester and the Twin Cities. He talked about the need for moving passengers, including commuters, between the Twin Cities and Rochester. He said 1.5 million visitors come to Rochester each year.

Brown said the study would look at the most direct route without buying a lot of property. He said each option would be a "green-field" route — where there is no track now — with no at-grade crossings. The tracks either would be elevated or have berms built up to hold them. He mentioned the right-of-way near U.S. 52 as one option as well as the bed of abandoned Minnesota Highway 56.

Concerning the freight-rail bypass, Brown said, "The glow is off using coal," referring to fears that the Canadian Pacific railroad would raise the number of trains hauling coal from Wyoming through Rochester. The bypass route has been considered for years, even after the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the federal Surface Transportation Board's 2002 approval of the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad project to extend the line to Wyoming.

The Dodge County Rail Authority is the only government entity to stand against the proposed freight rail bypass. The bypass and green-field routes would potentially affect rural landowners in Dodge and Olmsted counties.

About 40 people attended Tuesday's meeting, and many commented on the proposed studies.


Referring to the high-speed rail proposal, Dodge County commissioner Dave Hanson asked if there is really a need for a mass transportation system to the Twin Cities. Why aren’t buses being used first to test the need, he asked.

Attorney Stephen Smith, representing the Citizens Against Rochester's Bypass group, also questioned the high-speed rail proposal. "There is no benefit to Dodge County citizens," he said. 

Resident John Meyer talked about the upgraded track Canadian Pacific had recently installed through the two counties "with no taxpayer money." He said this is a great opportunity for Rochester. The city now has a class 1 track to ship goods in and out of the community on the smallest amount of space possible.

Resident Richard Masching wondered if there is a need for high-speed trains to run from airport to airport.

"There are airplanes that do that," he quipped.

Masching also asked if representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration would be included in the study since high-speed trains might have an effect on the number of plane passengers between the two metropolitan areas.

Having no at-grade crossings on rails through Dodge County would severely affect his ability to get his goods to market, said Masching.

Christensen said that if the high speed rail route is built, "it’ll be a logical improvement to transportation needs" in the area and, "it’ll be economic and effective." 

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