The $3 billion plan, the less costly of two, would require upgrading track between St. Paul and La Crosse.
Upgrading rail tracks between St. Paul and La Crosse, Wis., is the best bet for a Minnesota link in a future high-speed passenger line between the Twin Cities and Chicago, federal and state officials said Tuesday.
However, not only is the preferred route in the earliest planning stages, but fixing the existing track for the entire high-speed line could cost as much $3 billion -- and such funding isn't visible on the horizon.
But advocates hailed Tuesday's announcement as an important step in getting more money for faster passenger rail service.
"We're pleased that we're able to find a path to move forward and continue to develop the project ... if nothing else," said Dan Krom, director of the passenger rail office for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The La Crosse-St. Paul option was chosen over a more costly route from La Crosse to Winona and Rochester and then north to the Twin Cities, most of which would have been built from scratch.
Still, Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said he wasn't discouraged by the decision. He said he believes the federal government could find a need for a separate high-speed line to connect Rochester with the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, a line that could be built with faster speeds than using existing track, Brown said.
Advocates say upgrading the existing track could produce top speeds ranging from 80 to 110 miles per hour and cut more than two hours from a Twin Cities-Chicago trip.
They scaled back expectations for speed after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rejected federal funding for a more expansive high-speed rail system in his state.
The Minnesota route would upgrade the Amtrak Empire Builder line that runs largely along Hwy. 61 through the Minnesota cities of Hastings, Red Wing, Winona and La Crescent before crossing the Mississippi River into La Crosse.
The selection allows officials to pursue environmental and engineering studies.
Winona Mayor Jerry Miller, chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission, said "now is the time for state lawmakers and members of Congress to begin working together to make high-speed rail a priority in Minnesota and throughout the Midwest."
The announcement didn't surprise Brown, who said the selection process gave priority to upgrading existing track because acquiring land "to put concrete down is extraordinarily expensive."
But he said the long-term prospects of the Twin Cities-Chicago line are far from clear because "Wisconsin's not terribly interested in participating."
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504