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Walz, GOP candidates disagree on high-speed rail

Walz, GOP candidates disagree on high-speed rail
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz speaks to the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday at the Ramada Inn in Rochester.

When it comes to the issue of high-speed rail, 1st District Rep. Tim Walz is on the opposite side of the tracks from his Republican opponents.

Walz has been a strong supporter of a proposal to build the Zip Rail high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities.

During a speech to the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, the Democrat said he has never been a believer in the "build it they will come" mentality when it comes to rail. But he said if there is strong data backing up a rail project, he is willing to support it. During an interview after the event, Walz said it's clear Zip Rail meets that criteria. He said he is lobbying the U.S. Department of Transportation to fund the project with stimulus money rejected by other states.

"What we're trying to do is build a rock-solid coalition with all the data necessary to make our case to the Department of Transportation," he said.

Walz said Zip Rail is one of four high-speed rail projects nationwide that meets the criteria for a demonstration project the Obama administration is looking to fund based on population size, population growth and project cost. The city of Rochester, Olmsted County, Mayo Clinic and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce are strong backers of the rail project, which would cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.


While Walz backs the project, his Republican challengers made clear they have serious concerns about investing in high-speed rail. 

"I think we are putting way too much money into the rail side of (transportation) when we have infrastructure that is crumbling across the country," said GOP congressional candidate Mike Parry. "We have to focus on maintaining and repairing what we have right now and how do we do that better to get people in and out of Rochester?"

Parry said he has not had a chance to read the latest Zip Rail study, but the state senator from Waseca said people in the district are telling him they have serious concerns about how much it will end up costing taxpayers to run and maintain.

Former state Rep. Allen Quist, who is running against Parry in the Republican primary, said he also has concerns with funding high-speed rail.

"Everything I have seen on Zip Rail is that it is not cost effective," Quist said.

Another area of disagreement centers on how to fund a transportation bill. Congress has until June 30 to pass a new transportation bill. At this point, it appears likely lawmakers will opt for a temporary extension, Walz said.

Walz said he wants to see Congress pass a five-year transportation bill this year to get people to work, and address congestion problems that are costing businesses money. During an interview after the event, Walz said the bill is stalled in Congress because Republicans are demanding it be paid for entirely with cuts. But Walz said addressing the nation's infrastructure needs is going to require additional revenue.

"It's irresponsible for us not to pay our bills," he said. "I think we need to do that, but I think when it comes to this (transportation bill), where are going to get it? They can say cut it from somewhere else, but there's not enough there."


When it comes to raising revenue for transportation, Walz said he is not taking anything off the table at this point. Options could include looking at raising the gas tax, or a new tax on refiners or trades made on Wall Street.

But Quist said government is already spending too much money. He said if he were in Congress he would not support passing a permanent transportation bill until a plan had been put in place to balance the budget within six years.

"Transportation should be one of the highest priorities, but that (spending) ceiling needs to be put in place first. And unless it is, we are heading towards financial ruin," he said.

Parry said he is also wary of boosting spending, saying he opposes Congress' decisions to keep boosting the federal debt limit to allow for more spending. He argues that what is really needed is to revamp the nation's tax system. When asked for specifics, Parry said that at this point Congress just needs to have the discussion about tax reform and look at all the options.

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