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Minnesota high speed rail advocates meet with Senator Franken

(The following story by Heather J. Carlson appeared on the Rochester Post-Bulletin website on August 19, 2009.)

WINONA, Minn. — Advocates of a high-speed rail route along the Mississippi River gathered in Winona on Tuesday for the chance to make their case to U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

But the roughly 40 people who gathered at Winona State University soon learned that they would not find out whether Minnesota's newest senator backs that route or another route that would include Rochester as part of a line from Chicago to the Twin Cities. State Sen. Katie Siebein, a Democrat from Newport, told the crowd at the start of the meeting that Minnesota Department of Transportation officials and Franken's staff had asked that no one be "put in the uncomfortable position" of having to announce which route they support.

"Obviously, many of us are advocates for the river route, as we call it, that goes through Winona and up to the Twin Cities," Siebein said. "But I promised both officials from MnDOT and your staff, Sen. Franken, that we would not put you in the uncomfortable position, or anyone in the uncomfortable position, of saying which anyone favors."

Stimulus funds sought

MnDOT is asking for nearly $50 million in federal stimulus funds to study potential high-speed rail lines throughout the state. The most debated route is a Twin Cities-to-Chicago line. At issue is whether it would run through Winona and along the Mississippi River, include Rochester in a line that then veers north at some point, or follow Interstate 94 through Eau Claire, Wis., bypassing Winona and Rochester.

The meeting featured state lawmakers, university representatives and business leaders who are in favor of the Mississippi River route.

The Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance and Rochester area lawmakers were not invited to the event. Bryan Anderson, spokesman for the alliance and Mayo Clinic, said that the clinic did speak to Franken about including Rochester in a high-speed rail plan when Franken visited the clinic on Monday. The group was founded last year by the city, Mayo Clinic, Olmsted County and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce to push for including Rochester as a stop.

Route debate continues

It does not appear the debate as to where a potential route should go will end anytime soon. Dan Krom, director of MnDOT's passenger rail office, told the crowd it likely will be a few years before a route is determined for high-speed rail. A state rail plan is set to be completed by the end of this year, but it will not include a recommendation as to a specific route for the rail line. Instead, it will identify potential corridors to consider. Krom said where the rail line is built depends on what Wisconsin and Illinois end up doing.

State Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, a Democrat from Winona, said she is comfortable with relying on a data-driven process to determine where the route should go. She believes that the river route along the existing railroad track will win out in the end.

"We're optimistic that is going to happen," she said.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

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