MN: State Lawmaker Seeks to Block Zip Rail Project

Aug. 19--A suburban Republican lawmaker wants to block the state from moving ahead on a proposed high-speed rail line from Rochester to the Twin Cities, calling the Zip Rail project "a California-style boondoggle."

Rep. Pat Garofalo, of Farmington, said Zip Rail would be a waste of taxpayer dollars and that the money should instead be directed toward upgrading U.S. 52.

"We have limited transportation funds. We would be better off building wider shoulders, more overpasses on Highway 52 instead of spending what would be billions of dollars on a line that people don't want, don't need and certainly don't want to pay for," Garofalo said.

If re-elected this fall, the lawmaker said he would introduce legislation to halt the Zip Rail project. It would be modeled after a 2002 bill that passed, which prohibits the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Council and regional rail authorities from taking action or spending money to support the proposed Dan Patch commuter rail line from Northfield to the Twin Cities.

"Zilch for Zip is the motto we have," Garofalo said.

Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said it's not surprising that a transportation project of this size would generate some opposition, but this proposal is different from other rail projects in the state because it would not require government subsidies to operate.

"We have always said and stand by that it will require no subsidies, it will make money, it will be profitable on an operation basis from day one, and we continue to believe that. All the data supports that," Brown said.

Garofalo's announcement comes after a recent series of public meetings to gather input on the Zip Rail project. One of those meetings in Kenyon turned somewhat contentious, with several of the attendees voicing opposition to the project. Goodhue and Dodge county commissioners are expected to consider resolutions today opposing the Zip Rail project.

The project is in the Tier 1 environmental impact study phase, and the public has until Friday to offer comments on the project's scope. That study will include examining two possible routes for the railway -- one along U.S. 52 and another near Minnesota Highway 56. The study is expected to be completed in mid-2015.

Zip Rail trains would travel up to 220 mph, and a one-way ride would cost an estimated $27 to $30. Officials have said it is too early to determine how much it would cost to build the train, but Brown has previously said it would likely be a couple of billion dollars.

Talk about building a high-speed rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities dates back to 1991, but the idea has gained steam in recent years. In 2008, the Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance was formed to advocate for a high-speed rail line. It's a partnership of Olmsted County, the City of Rochester, the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and Mayo Clinic.

Mayo Clinic spokesman Bryan Anderson declined to comment on Garofalo's proposed bill, referring questions to Brown.

This year, Olmsted County requested $15 million from the state for Zip Rail. Those dollars would have been used to leverage up to $60 million in federal dollars to complete an Environmental Impact Statement for the project. But the funding was not included in more than $1 billion of construction spending approved by the Minnesota Legislature in May.

The proposed high-speed rail line would run through Garofalo's legislative district, and he said he has heard from plenty of constituents opposed to the project. He compares it to a proposed high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, for which construction costs have steadily ballooned.

"It defies common sense that people will pay $30 to ride a train from Rochester to the Twin Cities," Garofalo said. "For a family of four, it would cost $120 to go to the airport one way. Why on earth would anyone do that?"

Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, has been a strong supporter of the Zip Rail project. She said she agrees that the train may not be cost-effective for a family to ride, but also pointed out that the proposal is geared toward serving commuters and Mayo Clinic patients trying to get to Rochester. She added that rail needs to be part of the state's long-term transportation strategy and noted that private entities are interested in funding the rail project.

"I would be shocked that Pat Garofalo would stand in the way of private investments in our community, despite the fact that it's rail," Norton said.

Rochester GOP Sen. Dave Senjem, who serves on the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee, said that while he questions how such an expensive project will get funded, he does not support Garofalo's proposal to block the project from moving forward. He said such moratoriums are bad public policy and prevent valuable legislative discussion from occurring.

Senjem added, "I don't understand at this point how you make the finances work on it, but in the same breath I don't know that you just necessarily shut the door and put a moratorium on it either."

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