Aug. 09--The areas slated to be served by the Zip Rail line that would connect Rochester to the Twin Cities have many of the desirable attributes of a high-speed rail corridor, its planners say.
Those include a high concentration of jobs, population density, few other transportation options and plenty of existing rail right-of-ways that can be converted to accommodate trains traveling up to 180 miles per hour.
For Dan Krom, director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's passenger-rail office, the calculus of rail system building is not complex. It all comes down to "population, jobs, connectivity," he said.
Krom said he foresees a growing demand for public transportation to and from Rochester as its population and economy grow -- and that's before even factoring in the city's status as a medical hub.
Although additional track would have to be laid -- not to mention the new bridges and underpasses that would have to be built -- the existing track offers a much cheaper alternative to acquiring land and starting from scratch, he said.
The proposed high-speed rail project, whose cost has not been determined, remains in early planning stages, still years from completion. It is being jointly developed by the Federal Railroad Administration, MnDOT and the Olmsted County Regional Railroad Authority.
At a recent Dakota County Board meeting where commissioners were briefed on the Zip Rail proposal, several wondered whether the areas to be served have enough people to reap any real benefits from mass transit.
"You have all these lines, plus buses; Why would you want to add one more rail line in an already crowded area?" Commissioner Liz Workman asked. Workman, whose district encompasses Burnsville, also serves on the Dakota County Regional Railroad Authority and the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority Board.
Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord, who represents District 2, shared some of her colleague's skepticism about Zip Rail's viability. Like Workman, she said her support of the project hinged on the construction of a transit station in Dakota County, possibly in the vicinity of the University of Minnesota's UMore Park development in Rosemount.
But Krom said rapid population growth is expected in those areas.
Rochester, whose population has doubled since the 1970s to more than 107,000, is expected to add another 32,000 residents over the next 20 years. In that span, officials estimate the state's third-largest city will add thousands of jobs, many created by the Mayo Clinic's $6 billion Destination Medical Center expansion.
According to Krom, a growing number of Mayo workers commute from the Twin Cities, boarding commuter buses at the Mall of America, while many patients fly in and out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, one of two potential termini for the Zip Rail.
The high-speed line would run along one of eight potential corridors through parts of Dakota, Dodge, Goodhue, Hennepin, Olmsted, Ramsey and Rice counties; the corridor would be determined by the findings of a two-tiered environmental-impact study that is expected to be finished in 2019.
Trains traveling on the line would make the roughly 100-mile journey in 45 to 50 minutes, shaving about 45 minutes from the time officials said it takes to drive.
Officials said they will continue studying the eight potential corridors. Half of them would run along Hwy. 56. on an abandoned rail right of way, east of the towns of Randolph, Kenyon and West Concord. The other corridors under consideration would shadow Hwy. 14, before running more or less along the right of way of Hwy. 52 between Oronoco and Pine Island.
After passing through the town of Coates, the line would either continue along County Road 71 to Dodd Road and then on to the airport, or swing east on the Union Pacific right of way, through the cities of Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul, to St. Paul's Union Depot.
Zip Rail planners' arguments for the line echoed the findings of a 2012 study by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a nonprofit research group in Cambridge, Mass.
The report's authors argued that, from a commercial and practical standpoint, building a high-speed rail system makes sense when it covers distances of more than 100 miles.
Krom said that officials were taking the long view with this project.
"A lot of people know that connecting Minnesota to the rest of the country in other ways is beneficial to us," Krom said. "Eventually, 30 or 40 years down the road, that segment will be part a new line that goes down to Chicago."
Libor Jany -- 651-925-5033 Twitter:@StribJany
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