Plan would route high-speed rail through Rochesterby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
Rochester officials and the Mayo Clinic are pushing a plan for high speed rail that would connect Rochester to the Twin Cities and Chicago. The plan is an attempt to capitalize on the federal push for passenger rail across the country. It could also solve a long running dispute over freight trains moving through town.
Rochester, Minn. — To state leaders this project is a freight rail project. To Mayo and Rochester leaders it is a freight project in addition to a passenger rail project.
For years the Mayo Clinic and the City of Rochester fought against a plan by the Dakota Minnesota and Eastern railroad to run high speed coal trains from Wyoming's Powder River Basin through downtown Rochester and east.
Mayo claimed the coal trains would threaten patient care and research. The threat of those trains diminished when Canadian Pacific Railroad bought DM&E.
Hauling coal is still a possibility for the railroad, according to Mayo Clinic spokesperson Chris Gade. With this bypass the way is clear for that prospect.
"One of the things we know, and that they have said continuously, is that they have not yet made a decision to go into the Powder River Basin. But if and when that decision is made we know there is a significant increase in traffic [in downtown] that would occur," Gade said.
State officials call the plan the Southern Rail Corridor. It would re-direct freight trains south of downtown Rochester. The new track would reconnect with the city at the airport.
Gade and others also say this line could also serve as a passenger rail line linking Rochester, the Twin Cities and Chicago. Gov. Pawlenty supports the proposal, though he sees it primarily as a freight rail project.
"This relates to, in a significant degree, freight rail," Pawlenty said. "So this rail plan might fit into high passenger rail plans, but it also could be separate from that. These are two potentially related but not necessarily related issues."
Pawlenty said he will support the project with bonding money if the project gets federal funds. He is asking the Minnesota Department of Transportation to look for federal grants for the rail corridor.
MnDOT is also studying routes for a passenger rail line. That line would be part of the federal high speed passenger rail system proposed by the Obama administration.
At the moment, the most likely route appears to be a line that runs from La Crosse, along the Mississippi to St. Paul and on to Duluth. A final decision on that route will be made later this year.
A passenger rail line would be key in growing the Mayo Clinics, according to Mayo Clinic Rochester's CEO Dr. Glenn Forbes.
"We're the only organization that is a large academic center that is not situated in the middle of an urban environment," Forbes said. "That means the majority of the patients who come for our care, particularly patients who come from out of state, make tough decisions to come here. That's something we have to maintain as the largest private employer in the state," Forbes said.
Passenger rail could also serve as a back-up to air if regional air carriers were ever to pull out of the Rochester market, Forbes said.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz said he is asking that this project be made a high priority in this year's federal transportation bill. He said he's also looking into railroad funding and recovery dollars for the project. The current proposal is a freight proposal, but long-term the region's real need is in passenger rail, Walz said. Studies will determine where the passenger rail line is routed, he said.
"If the data supports it I would of course support it. But I also think it would be very difficult that you wouldn't even include the city of Rochester and the Mayo Clinic in a discussion considering [it's] the third largest city, the third largest employer, the fastest growing city. All of those things seem to indicate the viability is there," he said.
Rochester and Mayo Clinic leaders say the project is only a concept at this time. They say they will be meeting with rural community leaders and residents to design a final route proposal.
- All Things Considered, 05/12/2009, 5:16 p.m.