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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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