The prospect of a high-speed rail line slicing through the rural stretch of land between the Twin Cities and Rochester, and financed by Chinese and other private investors, is to some an exquisite dream.
To others, it’s folly.
The proposed $4.2 billion train would travel between the two cities at 220 miles an hour in 30 to 45 minutes, a trip that takes twice as long by car. Once known as Zip Rail, the project was abandoned earlier this year by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Olmsted County after nearly 25 years of study, due to a dearth of funds.
But a privately held Bloomington firm called the North American High Speed Rail Group (NAHSR) is keeping the idea of a high-speed rail line alive. Recently the group said that it was reorganizing and is now known as the Minnesota Corridor Project. None of NAHSR’s officers has experience developing such a project.
The group’s reorganization will continue to meet opposition from a determined grass-roots group called Citizens Concerned About Rail Line (CCARL) and several southern Minnesota lawmakers.
“Do we want Chinese foreign nationals owning the major transportation corridor cutting through the southern portion of Minnesota?” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. “I don’t think so.” He plans on reintroducing legislation next year that would cripple efforts to build high-speed rail.
Some residents along the route fear that their farms and homes could be taken for public use through eminent domain, a prospect they find even more distasteful because it would be a private company engaged in the taking. They also worry about the project’s impact on the area’s environment, safety and quality of life. And they question whether there’s sufficient ridership to sustain the service.
“There’s nowhere near the capacity to support this,” said CCARL co-founder Heather Arndt, whose farm in Hader is a few miles away from the proposed rail corridor. “There’s no economic benefit for us or local businesses. By taking our farmland, they’re decreasing our income and devaluing our land.
“If it fails,” Arndt asks, “would the state be left holding the bag?”
‘Holy Grail is Chicago’
Details about the proposed project are unclear. The line could perhaps begin in Bloomington, somewhere south of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and follow Hwy. 52 on an elevated track along its median through Dakota, Goodhue and Olmsted counties to either Rochester’s downtown area, or the airport there. The line could have just one stop — in Rosemount.
The ultimate goal would be a high-speed connection to Chicago, said Wendy Meadley, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Corridor Project. “The true Holy Grail is Chicago.”
The fact that Rochester is home to the famed Mayo Clinic is unspoken but implicit in the marketing of the line. Meadley refers questions about the health care giant’s involvement to Mayo officials. But, she notes, “Do you think all the stakeholders and investors would be moving forward if all the right players weren’t interested?”
Mayo Clinic Spokesman Karl Oestreich said in a statement, “Mayo Clinic is pleased with the private investor interest in the project, but has not provided financial assistance for the project.”
Officials with the Mayo-driven Destination Medical Center, a $5 billion public-private development planned for Rochester, said in a statement that developing “multimodal and transit solutions” is part of the group’s plan. DMC is “interested in seeing how the private investor project evolves.”
A DMC development plan is more pointed, noting the proposed Central Station in Rochester is “positioned to support a future high-speed rail connection” with the Twin Cities.
DMC Executive Director Lisa Clarke recently spoke at a meeting at St. Paul’s Town & Country Club that hosted a delegation from China Railway International. Meadley declined to reveal who else attended the event.
Ignoring high-speed rail?
If successful, the project would be an anomaly in the United States — especially if it is privately funded. To date, no high-speed rail lines are located in North America, although projects are underway or planned in California, Florida, Texas and other regions. (Amtrak’s Acela line is the fastest in the country, traveling up to 150 mph between Boston and New Haven, Conn.)
Twenty countries rely on high-speed rail as their main form of transportation, and another 15 countries are developing similar systems, said Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.
“We’ve been ignoring rail as a form of transportation quite foolishly,” Kunz said. He maintains high-speed rail is more efficient and environmentally cleaner than cars and planes, and that the oil, automotive and aviation industries have lobbied for decades to block it.
President Obama is a champion of high-speed rail, declaring in his 2011 State of the Union speech that 80 percent of Americans would have access to the service within 25 years. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 set aside $8 billion in grants to realize that goal — which was met with strong opposition from Republicans.
President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to upgrade the nation’s transportation infrastructure, but it’s unclear where he stands on high-speed rail.
‘Didn’t make sense’
When MnDOT and Olmsted County backed out of the Zip Rail project in January, NAHSR approached the state with its version of a high-speed rail project that featured a different technology and route, said Dan Krom, MnDOT’s director of Passenger Rail. “At that point, it didn’t make sense for us to move forward.”
About the same time, NAHSR co-founder Joe Sperber left the group in what he describes as a cordial break. Sperber, now a rail consultant working elsewhere in the country, believes transit-oriented development should come first for these projects. The remaining principals at NAHSR opted to concentrate on building the rail component first.
Beyond construction, Meadley says operational costs would be covered by passenger fares, revenue from hauling high-value freight, such as medical samples, and real estate development along the route.
MnDOT issued two permits to NAHSR beginning in January, allowing “their engineering folks to do what they need to do,” Krom said. Meadley claimed that the group gathered information on “topographic and geologic features of the planned corridor.”
On Dec. 1, the group’s permit expired, and Meadley said it won’t be pursuing a third. Instead, the group said in a statement that it would now be part of a consortium of “technical and strategic partners that are joining hands to participate with regional stakeholders.”
She would not share the names of these “six to 12 entities,” saying only that “we’re working with legal to pull that entity together.”
China Railway, which has global experience building and operating high-speed rail, is engaged in discussions with the consortium, Meadley said. The firm could not be reached for comment.