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Rochester leaders testify in support of high-speed rail

(The following story by Heather J. Carlson appeared on the Post-Bulletin website on February 11, 2009.)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Rochester leaders took their case for a high-speed rail stop to the Capitol on Tuesday, urging support of a bill that would provide $500,000 in planning funds.

Dr. Wyatt Decker, a Mayo Clinic executive board member, told lawmakers making Rochester a stop on the proposed Chicago to Twin Cities high-speed rail line could play a vital role in the clinic's future.

"High-speed rail is a key aspect of a long-term vision that will not only help Mayo Clinic provide care to patients and families (and) help us remain a major economic engine for the state of Minnesota, but also help the entire economic growth of our region," Decker said.

But Rochester was not the only one looking for rail dollars. Rep. Leon Lille, DFL-North St. Paul, presented his bill to the committee, which asks for $10 million to help pay for an environmental analysis of a high-speed rail route along the Mississippi River. This route would run through Winona to St. Paul following the existing Amtrak line. Supporters say this route could be built quickly and is part of a rail corridor established by the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

Winona Mayor Jerry Miller emphasized that other cities -- including Rochester -- could connect to the high-speed rail service in Winona.

"We can serve as a link between Rochester and other southern Minnesota cities to the potential high-speed rail," he said.

But Rep. Tina Liebling, who is sponsoring the $500,000 funding bill, said Rochester just wants the chance to be considered.

"We are not asking for anything to be predetermined. What we are really asking for here is that decisions not be made until all options are concerned and that this be really data driven," the Rochester Democrat said.

No votes were taken on either of the rail bills. Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester, is sponsoring a similar bill for Rochester rail planning funds in the Senate. Last session, a similar measure was vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who said the study would overlap with work being done to develop a statewide rail plan. Last year, Mayo Clinic, the city of Rochester, Olmsted County and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, joined together to form the Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance to advocate that Rochester be a stop on the proposed high-speed rail line.

Some committee members questioned why Rochester is for high-speed rail and against proposed upgrades to the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern railroad line.

"Is Rochester's message we only want passenger rail? We're willing to take freight and other rail? I am a little perplexed given the high-level of opposition to the DM&E," said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville.

Tim Geisler, spokesman for the Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance, said the two projects are very different. He said the concern with the DM&E project was the potential for a spill of hazardous materials.

"It's unfortunate that we're perceived that we're anti-rail. We're not anti-rail. We just believe that if you are going to build infrastructure, you ought to do it in a way that addresses the legitimate concerns of the community," Geisler said.

Friday, February 13, 2009

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