MN: Suburbs Skeptical of Speedy Zip Rail Between Twin Cities, Rochester

July 30--Don't bother building it if you're not going to stop here.

That was the message delivered resoundingly Tuesday by some senior Dakota County officials to planners of Zip Rail, a proposed high-speed rail line that would link Rochester to the Twin Cities.

The line would whisk passengers to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport or St. Paul's Union Depot at speeds of up to 180 miles per hour.

Without a station in Dakota County, it "becomes a flyover," County Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord said.

The line is still years away, but local officials are urging their peers to get active now as basic decisions are made about its path -- decisions that could affect the atmosphere of major parks.

The line would run along either Hwys. 52 or 56, through parts of Dakota, Dodge, Goodhue, Hennepin, Olmsted, Ramsey and Rice counties.

Gaylord was among several commissioners who offered only tepid support during a board meeting Tuesday.

Commissioner Thomas Egan said he hoped the question of building a station in the south metro will be addressed in an environmental study being conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration, the Olmsted County Regional Railroad Authority and the state Department of Transportation (MnDOT), results of which won't be known for at least five years.

Dan Krom, director of MnDOT's passenger-rail office, emphasized that the line is only in the study stage and that many important details, such as the location of any potential stations, still need to be worked out.

Trains traveling on the planned line, aimed at accommodating anticipated job and population growth along its proposed route, would make the roughly 80-mile journey in 45 to 50 minutes, shaving about 45 minutes from the time officials said it takes to drive.

Officials previously identified Rosemount as a potential station site, in the vicinity of the University of Minnesota's UMore Park development. But they stressed that any such decisions would be guided by the environmental study's findings.

Price tag?

Another question on Gaylord's mind is how officials plan to pay for the project, whose price tag hasn't yet been determined.

But, ultimately, her support for the project is contingent on the construction of a station nearby, "so that our residents have an opportunity to utilize it and so it doesn't just fly over Dakota County."

"There's more questions than there is concrete information about where it's going and how it's going to be," Gaylord said in an interview.

Officials pointed to a recent Federal Railroad Authority report that said "previous feasibility studies for the proposed corridor have supported its independent utility to support high speed intercity passenger rail."

"Currently, between Rochester and the [Twin Cities], the proposed corridor has no existing rail infrastructure south of Dakota County," the report continued. "The corridor would develop new rail infrastructure with an emphasis on existing public and railroad rights of way utilized to the maximum extent feasible and practicable."

Officials said they will continue studying the eight potential corridors. One would travel along Hwy. 56. on an abandoned rail right of way, east of the towns of Randolph, Kenyon and West Concord.

Another alignment under consideration would run more or less along the right of way of Hwy. 14, before shadowing Hwy. 52 between Oronoco and Pine Island.

An old question

This is hardly the first time the idea of introducing a high-speed rail has been taken up. For years, state transportation officials have debated how best to serve business and leisure travelers coming from Chicago to the Twin Cities.

One of the more ambitious proposals envisioned a high-speed line from the Windy City to Union Station. But it was derailed -- at least temporarily -- by funding shortfalls and political priorities.

Even though federal funds for rail projects are still scarce, the Zip Rail line is resurfacing at a much more favorable political climate, Krom said.

"I think, overall, people embrace the rail," Krom said Tuesday. "It's just they think there's competition for the limited funds with highways. Highway money comes from different sources.

"We're going to be positioning ourselves for either when there's the will or resources to do it," he said.

Care to comment?

Three public meetings seeking comment on the plan, the first of which was held in Rochester on Tuesday night, have been scheduled over the next few days.

The second meeting is set for 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Inver Grove Community Center, 8055 Barbara Av. in Inver Grove Heights. The final meeting is planned for Thursday at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School in Kenyon.

"We have to be planning for the future. And all of our transportation eggs shouldn't be in the roadways basket," Krom said. "We need to provide opportunities for folks to move in different ways."

Libor Jany -- 651-925-5033 Twitter: @StribJany

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