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Rochester says its status earns it high-speed rail stop

(The following story by Kevin Giles and Katie Humphrey appeared on the Star-Tribune website on March 15, 2009.)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The latest buzz among commuters like Stephen Whiteside who shuttle between Rochester and the Twin Cities isn't roadwork or heavy traffic.

It's high-speed trains.

"We've got buses full of people traveling back and forth every day," Whiteside said. A train that decreased travel time "would make the commute much more manageable."

Whiteside, a Mayo Clinic child psychologist who lives in Minneapolis and commutes four hours a day, has joined a chorus of public officials, residents and commuters who want a Rochester stop included on a proposed high-speed train route from Chicago to St. Paul. That's contrary to a multistate Midwest Regional Rail Initiative that calls for the $1.2 billion route to follow existing tracks along the Mississippi River from Winona to St. Paul.

The high-speed line is a long-discussed project that has gotten a shot in the arm because the economic stimulus bill included $8 billion for high-speed rail. Now, suddenly, the clock is ticking: The U.S. secretary of transportation is expected to submit a national rail plan to House and Senate committees this spring.

To some observers, a clash of political wills between Rochester and eastern counties invites the loss of high-speed rail altogether because money will disappear. They say it makes no sense to build a new route to Chicago when one already exists. The opposing argument holds that a debate over which route is best for Minnesota will inspire new ideas about transportation. Proponents say Rochester's status as Minnesota's new third-largest city, coupled with the Mayo Clinic's pulling power, deserve consideration in a state hungry for public transit.

"That is a destination medical center," said Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester. "The ability to get patients to that destination is critical and growing."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

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