Several measures aimed at blocking a proposed $4.2 billion high-speed passenger rail line between the Twin Cities and Rochester have been introduced recently at the Legislature.
It's unclear whether these efforts, if successful, will serve as the death knell for the controversial project.
But even though the Minnesota Corridor Project would be privately funded, opponents along the route are still determined to head off any possibility of public funding — from cities, counties, the Metropolitan Council, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, even the Mayo Clinic-driven Destination Medical Center economic development agency — to plan, build or operate the line.
So far the line is just a concept pitched by private investors once known as the North American High Speed Rail Group. They've discussed working with Chinese partners to build a rail line that would zip from the Twin Cities on an elevated track above Hwy. 52 to Rochester in about 30 minutes — with Chicago serving as the final stop.
If built, the line could be the first privately funded high-speed rail project in the country, though other projects could beat it to the station.
But the effort has met with strong resistance from residents and farmers in Goodhue, Dakota and Olmsted counties. Legislators from those areas have introduced three bills in the House and Senate this session that could hamper efforts to build it.
Although the status of the project is unclear, "there are still some strong elements of concern in my district," said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, lead author of a bill in the House.
His bill would require the project's developers to post a security bond or a financial guarantee if they use any state land or negotiate air rights above the highway for the train. This would permit taxpayers to recoup some costs if the project fails, Drazkowski said.
Drazkowski's measure also would require the developer to secure environmental insurance, and it would prevent the use of eminent domain laws to take private land for the project. A bill in the House, introduced by Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, has similar spending restrictions. Sen. Michael Goggin, R-Red Wing, introduced a version of that bill in the Senate.
A similar measure was introduced at the Legislature last year but didn't pass muster in the DFL-controlled Senate. However, with both the House and Senate now controlled by Republicans, there's hope among rail opponents this year.
But Ken Brown, chairman of the Olmsted County Board, called the efforts to block the project "an incredible waste of time." Brown, a supporter of the rail line, said he'd "love to see it happen. Are these people not in favor of private enterprise?"
Wendy Meadley, who has served as chief strategy officer and spokeswoman for the project, could not be reached for comment last week. According to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, Meadley's status as a lobbyist for the project was terminated Nov. 2.
Late last year, the name of the initiative was changed to the Minnesota Corridor Project. While its website declares that it's "Actualizing the Twin Cities to Rochester Connection," no further information is available. This comes after representatives from China Railway International visited Minnesota last fall to discuss the project in private meetings.
That group came together last year after MnDOT formally abandoned the project, then known as the Zip Rail, due to a dearth of funds.
Brown said there are still "interested parties putting together a coalition, but there's no announcement yet." He declined to identify the people or groups involved.
Heather Arndt, co-founder of the group Citizens Concerned About Rail Line (CCARL), says legislative protections aimed at blocking the project are needed — whether the project is moving forward or not. "The people living down here are standing firm," Arndt said.