Friday, January 29, 2010

Lawmakers tough on proposed rail bypass around Rochester, Minn.

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A bill backed by Olmsted County, Minn., and Mayo Clinic seeking $8 million in planning dollars for a freight railroad bypass of Rochester got a rocky reception from lawmakers Jan. 28, The Rochester Post-Bulletin reports. Opponents blasted the proposal during a House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee hearing. That included Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston.

"Correct me if I am wrong, but my guess is that this thing will be tied up in the courts for the next 80,000 years or so, and it is probably about the furthest project from being shovel ready that I can imagine," said Davids, who serves on the committee.

But supporters defended the project, saying it is about protecting Rochester's future.

"There are times when we as leaders are asked to look out into the future and make forward-thinking decisions rather than just looking to today and making an easier choice, and I am going to be asking you to do that," said Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, the bill's sponsor.

The Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority is asking the state for money to fund planning and engineering studies for a potential freight rail bypass known as the Southern Rail Corridor. Preliminary plans call for a 48.3-mile route that would run from Dodge Center to Eyota, bypassing Rochester. Supporters say the corridor would protect Rochester from potential safety threats and traffic congestion problems. Mayo Clinic officials say it would also help ensure its success at being a destination medical center.

Opponents say the corridor would end up going through some of the richest farmland in the state and end up dividing farms and wreaking havoc on the environment.

At the beginning of the hearing, Committee Chairman Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, advised members that with $4 billion in bonding requests and only $685 million available, most projects would not get funded.  The committee's job is to rank the projects and forward them to the House Capital Investment Committee for consideration.

Mayo Clinic Dr. Glenn Forbes told lawmakers the project is of statewide importance because of its potential impact on Mayo Clinic. He said the clinic's economic impact is $9 billion in the state. He warned that not having a freight bypass could cause the clinic serious harm.

"We all need to be very clear. Anything that compromises the attraction of patients coming to Minnesota for us can have a significant impact and can have very significant consequences for our state as a whole," said Forbes, the clinic's medical director for state government affairs.

Norton also noted that unlike other proposals before the committee, this project has already been awarded federal funding. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty also included the project in his bonding proposal, recommending $2 million in matching funds.

But opponents point to the project's final price tag of $325 million as being too costly. Dodge County Commissioner David Hanson said the county opposes the project because of the potentially high economic and environmental costs associated with it. He also accused supporters of trying to "disguise" the project as being for high-speed rail, when in reality it is for freight. He said instead Dodge County believes it makes more sense to work with Canadian Pacific Railway on addressing safety concerns on the existing line.

Two area lawmakers, Assistant House Majority Leader Andy Welti, DFL-Plainview, and Assistant House Minority Leader Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield, who both serve on the transportation committee and whose districts would be affected by the proposed corridor agree mitigation of the current line needs a closer look.

Davids remained unconvinced by supporters' testimony and said he does not believe the existing rail line poses a threat to the clinic's business.

"I am prone to having kidney stones and when I get one of those, there is no train that is going to keep me from going to Mayo Clinic," he said. "The argument that (patients) might not go to the Mayo Clinic if a train is going through, I don't quite comprehend that."

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