Minnesota comes up short in high-speed rail program

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Minnesota hasn’t been able to make a decision on a route for high-speed rail service to Chicago. Today the federal government gave it the equivalent of the home version of its “let’s build high-speed rail” game: $1 million to “study” the situation. It put itself in a position to do little else, and got a little less than what it had asked.

“I have always advocated for a data driven process to determine the route for high-speed rail that’s in Minnesota’s long term best interests,” Congressman Tim Walz, vice chair of the House Transportation Committees Subcommittee on Pipelines, Railroads and Hazardous Materials said in a press release. “This funding will be used to study possible routes that Minnesota outlined in its recent Statewide Rail Plan – including the River Route and the Rochester Route and put Minnesota in the running for future rail construction funding that will create jobs across our state.”

Other politicians said the usual things, but advocates of high-speed rail in these parts can’t be too happy, not when they’ve seen how other regions got a big chunk of cash for routes elsewhere.

Even Maine — Maine! — got $30 million – to extend service from Portland to Brunswick.

“We’re thrilled,” said Patricia Quinn, the executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority that operates the service. “It’s a great thing for tourism to be able to take a train to the doorstop of LL Bean without having to add any cars and congestion.”

Missouri got about the same amount for service between St. Louis and Kansas City. Washington state got $590 million. Wisconsin received over $800 billion million for service between Milwaukee and Madison.

Comparatively, Minnesota has stumbled on this effort. The big players in this drama are Rochester and the Mayo Clinic. They favor a route that takes it through Rochester. State officials favor a route along the Mississippi through Winona, mostly because it’s more direct and there are already tracks (though it’s anybody’s guess how a train is supposed to zoom through downtown Red Wing at 90 miles per hour).

It’s not clear how $1 million for a study will settle a standoff here. But one thing is clear: When it comes to competitive funding: You snooze, you lose. It’s true, as my colleague Dan Olson (who’s covered this issue) reminds me, the Minnesota-to-Madison portion of the plan was a low priority anyway (compared to, say, Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison), But today’s comparative shutout comes with a free dose of reality: You’ve got a far better chance of getting to Brunswick, Maine by high-speed rail in your lifetime than Chicago.

Here’s the full list of projects.

  • Jim Camery

    Whoops. Wisconsin got $800 million, not billion.

  • Tyler

    Did Minnesota lose, or did Northwest/Delta put the squeeze on a few people to maintain high prices on the MSP/O’Hare flights? Hmmm?

  • JackU

    I ride the current Amtrak on occasion (and will be doing it this weekend) and I would think that the current route is not suitable for high-speed trains. There are some sections of the track that have turn radii that are incompatible with 50-70 MPH trains, much less 125-150 MPH trains.

    That said I would think a direct shot to Madison that parallels I-94 for high speed and then better “regional” rail service linking Rochester, Mankato, Duluth, Sioux Falls and the St Cloud-Fargo corridor (currently served by Amtrak) with the Twin Cities would be more cost effective and create a better overall class of service.

    I’ll have to check the report on what they are doing between Madison and Milwaukee. The current route passes north of Madison at Columbus, WI so they must be planning to use a different track path. (again parallel to I-94 between Milwaukee and Madison.)

    While this plan is not immediately “good for us” it at least starts the process of higher speed rail service somewhere that is not the Northeast Corridor.

  • Dave

    I think that this article is more evidence of the “if-somebody-else-gained-then-we-must-have-lost” attitude that seems to affect most discussion of public policy these days. We are all part of the same country. Improvement in rail service anywhere in the U.S. will provide a good example of what the future could be for everyone. The interstate highways started somewhere and ended up everywhere. Furthermore, the Twin Cities to Rochester route is just not ready for final decisions.

  • Bob Collins

    Dave. Many experts in high-speed rail actually suggested to President Obama that he NOT sprinkle $8 billion (which, in the big scheme of things, is chicken feed for what this initiative will require) around the country, but that he concentrate it in one particular region. There isn’t going to be enough federal dollars to build a national rail system and the theory is by concentrating on one area, states and regions will want to build and expand. Is $1 million a step in the right direction? Of course, it is. Are we the caboose in this train? Yes.

    Only those who don’t travel elsewhere in the country would disagree with the idea that the state is a transportation backwater. It has poor public transportation, poor mass transit, and little connectivity to the rest of the country.

    At least in terms of transportation, there really are two Americas. Guess which one we’re in?

  • mulad

    I’m not sure exactly how fast trains used to run along the river route, but it was pretty fast. That was the route of Milwaukee Road’s “Hiawatha”, a service which was known for speed, though I think the fastest stretches were actually between Chicago and Milwaukee. They had the schedule between those two cities down to 65 minutes at one point, though that was non-stop.

    Anyway, any improvements along the line will help. If the Empire Builder or any future Twin Cities train can make use of improved track between Madison and Chicago, it could make a significant dent in the 8-hour running time we currently see. Back in the 1950s when the general 79 mph limit for trains went into effect except for specially-signaled track, Chicago and North Western only needed to upgrade half of the route of their “Twin Cities 400″ in order to maintain a 6.5-hour running time, and I think the limit on the eastern part was only 95 mph (trains had previously gone faster, probably up to about 115 on occasion).

    I would really like to see true high-speed trains running along the Rochester route to Chicago someday, but we could see a lot of benefit in upgrading current rails to run 90-110 mph. An Eau Claire route is a good option too, and could get going faster (at least as long as Union Pacific lets us run trains on their rails — apparently they’re not known for hospitality to passenger traffic).

    Actually, I think we should be seriously looking at running two or three routes instead of just one. Either the Eau Claire route or the river route would be great to start with, and then when the Rochester route gets built after a decade it should be added into a system rather than taking all of the traffic.