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High-Speed Rail Study Shut Down in the Midwest

An environmental study exploring the viability of high-speed passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee has been shut down after two Minnesota Republican legislators said it was a waste of taxpayer dollars.

By Janet Moore

An environmental study exploring the viability of high-speed passenger rail service between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee has been shut down after two Minnesota Republican legislators said it was a waste of taxpayer dollars.

In December, Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, and Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, objected to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) accepting federal grant money to complete the study -- largely because Wisconsin opposes high-speed rail.

"Minnesota should not be squandering precious tax dollars -- whether local, state or federal -- on a wasteful project actively opposed by other states whose support is necessary to proceed," the legislators wrote in a letter to the commissioner of the Department of Management and Budget. Torkelson and Newman are chairmen of transportation committees in the Minnesota house and senate, respectively.

Dan Krom, director of the MnDOT's Passenger Rail Office, confirmed that work on the study has stopped after just over $1 million in state and federal money had already been spent on it. Torkelson and Newman were objecting to a final $181,682 grant that was expected from the Federal Railroad Administration.

The news upset advocates pushing for enhanced passenger rail service between the two Midwestern cities, now served by Amtrak's Empire Builder line.

"That's regrettable," said Janice Rettman, a Ramsey County commissioner who chairs the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission. "We fight so hard for dollars from the feds."

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who serves on the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, called the decision "extremely unfortunate. Do they only want people to have cars and drive? They have a complete disregard for other modes of transportation."

The news comes as the Trump administration and Congress contemplate a big federal program to improve the nation's infrastructure. How this will affect passenger rail service is unknown, although President Donald Trump had suggested eliminating Amtrak routes like the Empire Builder last year.

Since 2010, high-speed rail has been a hot-button political issue in Wisconsin. GOP Gov. Scott Walker declined $810 million in federal stimulus money for a Madison-to-Milwaukee line, saying it would be too expensive to build and maintain.

The money was part of the Obama administration's $10 billion investment in high-speed passenger rail nationwide. But Republican governors in Florida and Ohio turned away the money, too.

Walker's opposition to the service remains unchanged, according to Torkelson. "It would be rather inappropriate for us to spend federal funds when there's no chance of it going forward," he said. (Walker's office did not return phone calls.)

Krom said the study was intended to create a "framework for the environmental process moving forward and start looking at some general issues. We didn't get to any detail, this was just the initial money to get the project started." A request for funding to pay for a more-detailed study likely would have followed.

There's no standard definition for high-speed passenger rail, which was pioneered by Japan in the mid-1960s. Generally speaking, high-speed trains are capable of sustained speeds of 150 mph or more -- which is the case in Europe and Asia. Some trains in China, which has bet big on the high-speed rail, whisk along at 220 mph.

The United States has no true high-speed rail service. A report by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association attributes this to a lack of funding, the difficulty of getting state, local and municipal governments to agree on a plan, and outdated safety regulations and infrastructure. The majority of Amtrak trains share track with freight. And there's Americans' storied love of their automobiles.

Disasters such as the Amtrak crash near Tacoma, Wash., in December may also dampen public enthusiasm for speedier rail service, although federal investigators have not formally pinpointed the cause of that crash. The Cascades 501 train was traveling 78 mph in a 30 mph zone when it crashed, killing three people and injuring dozens of others.

Studies like the shuttered MnDOT effort are intended to determine if faster -- not necessarily high-speed -- passenger service can be achieved. Amtrak's Acela Express, which links Boston to Washington, D.C., is the fastest train in the United States, traveling up to 150 mph in spots.

Still, "it's not high-speed rail, even though some people call it that," said Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest rail association. "It's really just fixing the existing track so you can run things faster and more frequently."

Harnish said stopping the Minnesota high-speed project is shortsighted because it prevents what he called "a basic assessment" to understand what's needed.

In the Midwest, work continues to upgrade track, crossings and stations between Chicago and Detroit and Chicago and St. Louis so that trains can travel up to 110 miles an hour along certain stretches, according to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

While speedier service and more-frequent trains help build ridership, reliability is the most-important attribute for luring more passengers, Magliari said.

On that front, MnDOT is part of the charge to add a second daily round-trip passenger train to existing Amtrak service between the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago. With funding and political support, the second line could begin operating in 2022.

Torkelson said he's "not opposed to anything that is economically viable. You need to use resources in a fashion with projects that actually have a chance of getting done."

(c)2018 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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