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Winona could get high speed rail

(The following story by Sarah Elmquist appeared on the Winona Post website on April 21, 2009.)

WINONA, Minn. — Winona could soon be host to thousands of new visitors and the whiz of high speed passenger trains, if a proposal to use stimulus dollars for high speed rail connecting to the Twin Cities and Chicago is approved.

Both the city of Winona and Winona County are poised to enter into a joint powers agreement with cities and counties along the proposed river route to apply for those stimulus dollars, with President Obama calling for the nation to move quickly to develop a system of high speed rail. Federal transportation department officials have named the Chicago hub one of six proposed routes that have a chance at $8 billion allotted for such rail projects.

As for Winona, the current passenger Amtrak rail is the second most used line in the state, making the proposed upgrade to the existing line a no-brainer for supporters.

“It’s something that we’re excited about,” said County Commissioner Jim Pomeroy. “We’ll find that we’ll have faster transportation to the Twin Cities and Chicago and all points in between,” he said, adding that the county, city and regional authorities would be “making very strong promotional moves” in the future.

While the project is considered “shovel ready” and may stand a better chance at funding because of it, some have questioned the route because it would, at least for now, bypass Rochester. Some Rochester advocates say that they’re in favor of waiting and studying a different route through the city, adding that Rochester’s status as the state’s third largest city deserves consideration in the plans.

But those who’d like to see the less expensive, ready to go project through Winona get a chance at funding say that Rochester could certainly be added with a route extending from Winona in the future, after such a route has had time to be studied and planned for. They fear that waiting for a study to extend high speed tracks to Rochester would mean that the project would lose out on funding now.

And on Friday, Congressman Tim Walz announced that he and Obama administration official Mark Yachmetz would hold the first roundtable discussion on high speed rail in the Midwest since the president’s call for a national effort to move toward high speed rail: In Rochester.

The roundtable discussion will be held at the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce on Sunday, April 19 at 2 p.m. “Participation in this event is by invitation only,” read the press release Friday, adding that the media could ask questions before and after the roundtable discussion.

And while the Winona river route might be shovel ready, state and federal leaders may lean toward waiting until a statewide rail plan is completed, which Gov. Pawlenty asked for earlier this month. With some of the $8 billion meant for projects that are ready to go, like the river route, several Midwest governors have voiced support for Minnesota to receive funding for planning, engineering and environmental study for the state’s portion of the high speed rail. Walz said this in a statement Friday: “This discussion is critically important to ensure that local leaders from Southern Minnesota have all the tools at their fingertips to help the state of Minnesota build the strongest application for federal funding.”

Meanwhile, local leaders are still hopeful that a plan can be reached that meets all regional demands.

“We’ve been working for a long time with mayors and cities up and down the line,” said Winona Mayor Jerry Miller. He said that alongside the plans to connect Winona to the Twin Cities and Chicago, the city has been working with CP Rail officials on a potential future link to Rochester

“I think [the river route project] would be a big benefit,” said Miller. “It’s good for the city, for our universities. You can get on a train here and go all the way to the West Coast. Winona has always been a railroad town, we used to have passenger trains six or seven times a day here.”

Miller said that the city is also looking into potential upgrades to enhance the area near the current Amtrak station, and if the project goes through it will greatly enhance both the city and region as a travel destination.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

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