LaHood says Minnesota ‘absolutely not’ out of high-speed rail plan

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.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/09/2011 - 09:15 pm.

    Not sure the arson it’s so difficult for some to see the advantage of governmental investment. Build high speed and lite rail wherever it can be done. And do it now. I woder if these naysayers have ever taken a loan out ? I suppose maybe not if they inherited their wealth. But the rest of us carry debt because we have to. But it’s a Lexus lane mentality these days.

  2. Submitted by Paul Scott on 02/10/2011 - 12:03 pm.

    The Highway 61 route is not amenable to high speed rail (too many tight turns). They should connect the Twin Cities and Rochester along Highway 52 with the money.

  3. Submitted by Michael Olson on 02/10/2011 - 01:48 pm.

    Couldn’t the Twin Cities and Chicago just burrow underneath Wisconsin?

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/10/2011 - 02:37 pm.

    “They should connect the Twin Cities and Rochester along Highway 52 with the money.”

    Ditto. Put the stub in to link TC & Roch. Connect through WI when they pull their cranium out of their backside.

  5. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 02/10/2011 - 03:35 pm.

    Yeah, Mn/DOT has finally gotten on the rail bandwagon and wants to build/upgrade several lines regardless of what’s going on with Wisconsin politics. We’ve been talking about the line to Milwaukee and Chicago for 20 years at least (my dad took me to one of the open houses they had in 1991), so it’s time for it to get built.

    Governor Walker has been less antagonistic to upgrades to the existing Hiawatha and Empire Builder routes, so I hope that Mn/DOT’s plans to add a second train along the Empire Builder route to the Twin Cities (and perhaps on to Fargo) will move forward smoothly. Mn/DOT also wants to build a commuter/regional line to Eau Claire, so it seems pretty definite that we’ll see stuff happening in Wisconsin no matter the current political climate.

    I want to see a line built to/through Rochester since I’m from that area, though I suspect the initial “high-speed” link to Chicago will probably bounce through Eau Claire since that makes for the shortest possible route along existing rails (and it roughly parallels I-94). Ultimately, I suspect we’ll see the Empire Builders continue to run along the river, an intermediate-speed route on the short path through Eau Claire, and another high-speed line through Rochester. That would seem to satisfy everybody, though I’m not sure whether there’s enough demand for it to work.

  6. Submitted by David Greene on 02/10/2011 - 05:48 pm.

    Doing a Twin Cities-Rochester line at this time is a brilliant idea. Take the lemons and make lemonade out of it. Gov. Walker may have unwittingly provided the climate to allow an option all but dismissed as infeasible to actually happen.

    Such a corridor could also serve the southeastern suburbs with commuter rail. The ridership for it isn’t there yet but building it for high-speed rail would allow those counties to more easily build the ridership.

    The best part of all: new track that will not have to be shared with freight. That alone will make the operation much smoother and efficient.

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