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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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