"Rather than requesting a large public investment in a 'Southern Rail Corridor,' I believe it is in the best interests of the taxpayers and the community to negotiate with Canadian Pacific and develop plans for a through-city mitigation project for the existing freight rail corridor," Welti wrote.
In an interview, Welti said he approached supporters of the Southern Rail Corridor and offered to lead a negotiation team to meet with Canadian Pacific Railway about mitigation. He said a bypass could cost the state as much as $90 million, and it makes sense to consider other options.
"At this point we need to show everyone involved in this that we are going to do a thorough analysis and that our decision is going to be based on data," he said.
The proposed rail bypass is proving to be a political hot potato for local lawmakers. Mayo Clinic, Olmsted County, the city government and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce back the bypass, a 48.3-mile route plotted south of Rochester in an arc from Dodge Center to east of Eyota.
Supporters argue that increased freight traffic on the existing line through Rochester poses a safety hazard, would lead to traffic congestion and result in a freight train bottleneck. But the bypass plan has drawn sharp criticism from those concerned about its cost and the potential to divide farmland. Helping to ramp up the debate is a request to the state by the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority for $8 million to complete study and engineering work on the Southern Rail Corridor.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently announced that his capital investment proposal includes $2 million for the study work. The county would be required to match those dollars.
Dr. Glenn Forbes, Mayo Clinic medical director for state government, reiterated the clinic's support for the bypass. He said the clinic has maintained communications with Canadian Pacific Railway.
"We really are very supportive of increasing the capacity for carrying freight through southern Minnesota and in doing that in a way that does not produce a bottleneck here in Rochester nor does it create a hazard for the very sensitive downtown area," he said.
Canadian Pacific Railway spokesman Mike LoVecchio declined to comment on Welti's statements. The railroad views it to be a "local issue first and foremost," he said.
LoVecchio added," We view the existing line as meeting our needs and there are existing customers that remain on that line."
Kathy King, co-chair of the Citizens Against Rochester's Bypass, said the group sees Welti's announcement as a step in the right direction. She said the group hopes to meet with Welti to discuss his idea.