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Study will examine freight rail traffic, mitigation options

A federally funded study of freight railroad services through the Rochester area is set to get under way.

The Olmsted County Railroad Authority voted 7-0 Tuesday to approve a grant agreement with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which administers the $487,000 grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, to begin the study, which will analyze expected future railroad traffic on the existing Canadian Pacific Railroad line through Rochester and list options to mitigate traffic increases. That could include proposals to reroute the line around the city.

The county will issue a request for proposals from private consultants and select one within the next two or three months. The analysis is expected to be complete by the end of next year, said Chuck Michael, a private engineer who is managing the project for the county.

Earlier proposals for bypasses around the city were "reactionary" plans drawn in the heat of the moment when the railroad's former owner, the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad, was advancing plans to upgrade the line and extend it to haul western coal.

The new study, being introduced at a time when things are relatively quiet with the railroad, is intended to be a methodical and open process following federal procedures, Michael said.

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"This is a good time to ask the questions" about what, if anything, should be done with Rochester freight rail, Michael said. "Now, we have to bring all that inside the public process."

The analysis of future rail traffic will take a 25- to 50-year time-frame into account, Michael said.

The current line, upgraded to heavy-gauge rail in recent years, is "capable of a lot more traffic than it's moving," Michael said. But it's also "capable for a lot more traffic than our (road) transportation system can tolerate."

Rochester has only two grade separations crossing the line, on U.S. 52 and West Circle Drive. Other streets are blocked when trains pass.

Canadian Pacific has been invited to be part of the study, and would have a "seat at the table" if it chooses, Michael said.

Bypass opponents were present at the meeting but did not speak when given an opportunity.

Past proposals by Rochester and Mayo Clinic for rural bypasses have created an atmosphere of mistrust among some rural residents. Michael said he hopes those residents will come to trust the new approach.

"I think trust is earned," he said. Residents of Olmsted and neighboring Dodge County are welcome to participate, he said.

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The study will not result in a firm proposal for or against a bypass.

"It is not to define solutions," Michael said of the study. "It is to help us define what the problem is."

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