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December 6, 2019

11/12/2015 9:22:00 AM
CCARL meeting draws big crowd

by Sandy Hadler

A crowd of 50-plus people attended the November 6 Citizens Concerned about Rail Line (CCARL) meeting at the Zumbrota VFW. Spokesperson Heather Arndt said the goal of the organization is to keep those who live in the affected areas updated on what is happening with the proposed Zip Rail between Rochester and the cities. The ultimate goal is to get the Federal Railroad Administration to proclaim a "No Build" decision.

She said proponents of the Olmsted County plan, which has been nicknamed the Zip Line, are still considering both Highway 52 and Highway 56 as potential travel corridors. Because most of the east-west roads in Goodhue County would have to be closed, due to the high speed of the trains, which makes it impossible for vehicles to cross the tracks safely, an elevated track is now being considered.

Arndt said in studying the situation, they learned that the track cannot be built in the Highway 52 median because, in order to do so, the median must be 80-feet wide and the Highway 52 median is only about 60-feet wide in some places. To build within the median would violate the safety rules established for freeways.

Arndt said that is why the CapX power poles couldn't be placed in the median and were installed on private property. Because of this, a mile-wide right-of-way is being considered on the west side of Highway 52, all the way from the Cities to Rochester where the Zip Line corridor could be built.

Arndt said that means 100% of the property that would be taken for the project is privately owned. Two miles on either side of the old railroad bed by Highway 56 are also being considered for a corridor in that area. Those who favor the Highway 56 route may be surprised to learn that farmers have acquired the railroad bed, so it is no longer public property, and it is not available to be used for the Zip Line project.

After MnDOT announced that no public money will be used for the project, the North American High Speed Rail group took an interest in Olmsted County's Zip Rail that would connect Rochester to the Cities. NAHSRG is a private entity and if it happens to take over the project, it is only interested in building a high speed rail system along Highway 52, and will dismiss Highway 56 as the alternate corridor for the project. Arndt noted that Congressman Steve Drazkowski has sponsored a bill to take away all public funding for NAHSRG.

Drazkowski, who was in attendance, told the crowd that he plans to contact Representative Tim Kelly, who is the state transportation chair. He will urge him to hold a public hearing soon, most likely in Cannon Falls or Zumbrota, so people can talk about high speed rail with the House Transportation Committee. He also is going to ask MnDOT to hand over any correspondence about the Zip Rail project from all entities involved. He told those in attendance that he may ask for their help when reviewing the materials.

Despite many local people being against the high speed rail project, Arndt said there are people who see a need for the Zip Rail because it is tied to Destination Medical Center and the 2023 World's Fair, which is rumored to possibly be held in Rosemount, at a cost of $4 billion. In comparison, the estimated cost of the Zip Rail project is $4.2 billion. Opponents note that the ridership between the Cities and Rochester would never be high enough to sustain the life of the Zip Rail without using government subsidies. Drazkowski said he has written another bill to prohibit public funding for the potential Minnesota World's Fair.

Arndt said both Olmsted County and NAHSRG have admitted that their need for the Zip Rail is tied to events like the World's Fair and Destination Medical Center. She said using these events as a reason to build the high speed rail project "is a violation of the Federal Railroad Administration rules." Arndt added, "The rail project is not supposed to be dependent on something else being created. It must stand alone as it is. The project should not be approved, and the decision of the Federal Railroad Administration should be a no-build decision."

Barb Stussy said NAHSRG had not filed an application for the proposed Las Vegas-Los Angeles high speed route that they have been interested in pursuing. Arndt thought they had been trying to use this rail project to leverage Rochester, and Rochester was using it to push the State. "And then they didn't file. This is why we should be very cautious about them as a private entity," she said. And because of constant changes in leadership at NAHSRG, Arndt asked, "Is this organization mature enough for this big of an endeavor? This is a reason why our state should not go into any kind of agreement with them at this point in time. I'm not very confident that as a business entity they are mature enough, sound enough, solid enough and stable enough, since they are always changing their leadership and their Facebook information."

Nora Felton pointed out inconsistencies in information. For example, the trains were originally predicted to be running around 110 miles per hour and that has increased to 310 miles per hour. The time of travel between the Cities and Rochester was first thought to be 50 minutes, and that now has been reduced to 29 minutes. The plan was originally to have the tracks on the ground, now they may be elevated. Cost of tickets started out at $60 per one-way ride, and that has dropped to $30 per ride. Felton pointed out that Rochester could become a loser if it only takes 29 minutes to travel from Rochester to the Cities, as people may decide to eat at restaurants and stay in motels up there because there is more night life in the Cities than in Rochester.

Arndt said Olmsted County is now in the process of completing Tier 1 EIS and little information about the decisions being made have been shared with the public. She said the completion date continues to be delayed. Tier 1 will address whether Highway 52 or Highway 56 will be chosen as the corridor for the project. Tier 2 will get into more detail about what land will be used for the project, where to block off roads, and to identify houses that may be in the way.

Arndt said MnDOT is considering hitting the pause button after Tier 1 is done because of lack of funds. She said, "But that hasn't stopped NAHSR yet, so we are not yet done." She said CCARL would like to host a meeting with MnDOT to discuss its multi-mobile plan, which will be taken around the state to get input. That plan is about big concepts, one of which is the state rail plan. It will probably be spring before a meeting is scheduled.

Comments and Questions

Arndt was asked if CCARL is making ground or losing it. She responded, "It depends on the moment." Felton added, "In 2016 they were supposed to break ground. We have slowed them down considerably." Arndt agreed that the large amount of anti-Zip Rail proponents, who showed up in Kenyon at the first meeting, set a precedent that helped to slow down the proposed project.

One man said, "I believe Olmsted County couldn't care in the least about what we want. A few years ago they fought DM&E tooth and nail about rebuilding their line by Rochester. All of a sudden they want us to support this and they wouldn't support us in the freight train issue."

Someone questioned if it is technically possible in a cold climate to do high speed rail. It was mentioned that there is high speed rail in one of the Scandinavian countries, but it has a lot of issues and problems. Another man asked if surveyors had begun working yet, and Arndt said they have not.

Arndt said, "They are stealing our property for something ludicrous, and it is not right."

Conclusion of meeting

Barb Stussy said the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) could be coming out soon. She urged everyone to have questions ready, as there will probably only be a short period of time to respond. Arndt said there is a 30-day comment period and she plans to ask for an extension to 90 days, since there is legal precedent to do so. A woman in the audience said earlier in the day, it was announced that the study will come out in early to mid-December.

A man in attendance said it is important for the group to think of themselves as a community that is tied together with a common goal and they must rely on each other. He said, "You may not be in the target zone, when it shifts to you. That's why we need to stick together. Our strength comes in our members, whether Highway 52 or Highway 56 is the target. They want to conquer and divide. We aren't fighting just for one of the projects not to happen, we are fighting to keep both of them out of here."

The next meeting of CCARL will be at 6 p.m. on Thursday, December 3 at the Cannon Falls High School auditorium.

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