Fact sheet: Get caught up on the latest high-speed rail developments
A decade-long push by local officials and the Mayo Clinic to build a high-speed rail between Rochester and the Twin Cities metro appears to be gaining momentum. The emergence of a potential private investor, North American High Speed Rail Group, means the project could progress quicker than expected without using any taxpayer money.
Most recent update
North American is now requesting the Minnesota Department of Transportation give it two years of exclusive negotiating rights for portions of multiple area highways, including a lengthy corridor of U.S. 52.
Preliminary plans by the company call for an 84-mile elevated rail from Bloomington to Rochester. Citing internal documents from MnDOT, the Post-Bulletin reported in July that speeds could reach 260-280 miles per hour, "allowing passengers to get between the two cities in as little as 29 minutes."
There is also the possibility of a stop in Dakota County, according to the paper. Once the rail project is finished, North American is interested in building a link between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
Zip Rail on life support
Meantime, the project known as "Zip Rail" — the state's name for the proposed rail project — is now undergoing the first stage of an environmental review process. However, opposition from Republican lawmakers in the state Legislature make it unlikely that any additional public funding will be used for the project once the review is complete.
In a recent interview, Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said now is the right time to hand things things over to North American and allow them to "transition it from a public to private project." He said the group has been involved with discussions for about two years and is "ready for the next step."
If North American is able to move forward with the project, it would be responsible for all future costs. That includes planning, real estate acquisition, construction and maintenance. Brown said the company actually prefers not to use public funding, which could "come with strings attached."
Several municipalities along the proposed route, including Cannon Falls and Zumbrota, have taken steps to prevent a high-speed rail from passing through their communities. However, Brown said there may be opportunities to build construction and maintenance facilities in rural towns along the route. "How would they say no to new jobs?"
World's Fair connection
North American is also involved in an effort to bring the World's Fair to Minnesota in 2023. The fair, which would focus on health and wellness, has the potential to draw 10-20 million visitors from across the globe.
The goal would be to have the high-speed rail up and running by the time the event begins. A ruling on Minnesota's bid for the fair won't be made until next year, and it remains unclear how that decision will factor into the rail proposal.
The company is also considering developing real estate along with the rail.
Bigger than Rochester
About a third of the $4.2 billion needed to fund the rail project would come from Chinese investors, according to North American.
That number is not surprising, considering the Chinese are involved in numerous other big projects across the world, including a 230-mile line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
According to a recent blog post published to The Economist:
After investing in more miles of new high-speed rail than any other country in the world, it has developed the engineering know-how to build tracks and trains — which it now hopes to export to overseas markets. The United States is one of more than 20 countries where China aims to build a market for its rail industry.
Pres. Barack Obama tried to make building a high-speed rail network a priority during his time in office. However, big projects in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin failed to get off the ground after Republican governors in those states all turned down federal funds.
Michael Smart, an assistant professor of transportation planning at Rutgers University, wrote earlier this year for CNN that it's unlikely the U.S. will match rail systems in Europe or Asia anytime soon:
The biggest barrier to improved rail service in the United States is simply the lack of political will. At the federal level, support for passenger rail service has languished and Washington has devolved decision-making (and increasingly, funding) to the states. With the nation's transportation trust fund nearly broke and no permanent solution in sight, it seems unlikely the federal government will champion high-speed rail -- a costly endeavor -- in the near future.
Outside of Rochester, there are other high-speed projects in the works, including ones from Los Angeles-San Francisco and Dallas-Houston. The Minnesota project, however, has the opportunity to be the first high-speed rail project in the U.S. fully funded by private investment.
About Sean Baker: Sean is the founder and editor of the Med City Beat. Under his direction, the site has transitioned from a small news blog to one of the most widely-read publications in the city. Prior to launching the site in 2014, Sean spent about two years producing television news in Green Bay and Rochester. His office is above a brewery, so please excuse any typos. Twitter.
(Cover graphic: Zip Rail / MnDOT)