WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today said Minnesota is “absolutely not” out of the high speed rail equation, despite Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker opting his state out of a proposed Chicago to Twin Cities high speed line.
LaHood, in a briefing with regional reporters here in advance of the president’s budget release Monday, told MinnPost:
“I’ll go back to the illustration I’ve been using for the last 24 months. When President Eisenhower signed the interstate bill, not all the lines were on the map, they weren’t all connected and we didn’t know where all the money was coming from.
“But if we carry out the president’s vision of connecting 80 percent of America within 25 years, Minnesota will be in the game, because they want to be. They want to be part of the plan. If you look at our plan… Minnesota is in there, and eventually over time these states that want to become part of the intercity high speed rail, they will be.”
Meaning: Even if Wisconsin continues to reject federal funds for high-speed rail, Minnesota projects may still be able to begin.
The White House plans to allocate $53 billion over six years — $8 billion coming in the fiscal 2012 budget to be released Monday — to high-speed rail efforts and LaHood stressed that Minnesota could compete for that money.
LaHood pointed to the start of the interstate highway system, when Interstate 74 was built to connect a 40-mile route between Peoria and Bloomington, Ill. At the time, critics assailed the move as a highway to nowhere. Now, however, Interstate 55 runs from Chicago to St. Louis and connects with I-74 near Bloomington, thus linking Bloomington and Peoria with the two major cities as was originally intended.
That segmented-build approach to high-speed rail has begun in two states, California and Florida. In California, an Los Angeles-to-San Francisco route has started in the middle of the eventual route between two small cities, while new rail in Florida begins with a Tampa-to-Orlando link that won’t ever become high speed but will eventually connect to a high-speed Orlando-to-Miami route.
And already, work has begun on at least one aspect of high-speed rail in Minnesota, in the redevelopment of St. Paul’s Union Depot. Part of the $957 million plan’s selling points in D.C. was that it would be an eventual Twin Cities connector for the Chicago high-speed rail line, and the renovation plans anticipate that eventuality.
However, Minnesota’s plans got dealt a blow when Walker, newly elected on a pledge to cut spending, rejected $810 million in federal money for a Madison-to-Milwaukee rail line, saying that the costs to maintain it would be too high.
Should that route not materialize, officials with the Minnesota High Speed Rail Commission have said they could look to use track space currently used by Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago through southern Wisconsin, into the Twin Cities (and eventually on to the Pacific coast).
Either way, LaHood was adamant that Wisconsin’s refusal would categorically not impact Minnesota, and that the line would eventually be completed. Think about how many elections happened, he said, how many governors were elected, but note that eventually the system got built.
And in the immediate future, “We’re going to continue to work with states that want to be part of the intercity high speed rail plan,” LaHood said.