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Zip Rail plan fires up crowd

By Sandy Hadler

KENYON, Minn. -- Several hundred people crowded into a high school auditorium Thursday -- most of them angry and anxious to voice opposition to a proposed Zip Rail line.

If approved, the passenger rail line would run about 100 miles from Minneapolis to Rochester. After proceeding to the Hampton/Coates area, the line would either continue down Highway 52 or veer off and follow Highway 56 to the west, depending on which route is chosen.

Olmsted County Regional Railroad Authority project manager Chuck Michael explained that every day 40,000 commuters drive to Rochester from 47 of the 87 counties in Minnesota. Of that number, 4,000 to 5,000 come from the Twin Cities.

“We are a commuting society and the numbers will only increase,” he said.

Mass transit systems move more efficiently and safely than traffic on highways, he said, and the Zip Rail study is being done in response to a transportation need.

Michael said the cost of a one-way ticket would be $27 to $30.

Some in attendance felt the price was too high. They said commuters would opt not to ride the train, pointing out that the round-trip cost for passengers for a year would be $13,000 to $14,000. Others said Mayo Clinic employees could pay considerably less by riding a commuter bus to and from work.

Michael said the train would be capable of traveling 150 to 220 mph. People could save an hour or 90 minutes by using the train. He said the time saved would be the draw for many talented and highly skilled people who make the commute to Mayo Clinic each day.

Minnesota Department of Transportation representative Garneth Peterson explained that MnDOT, in cooperation with the Federal Railroad Administration and the Olmsted County Regional Railroad Authority, is preparing a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement. A cost estimate has not been developed. If the state Legislature approves the project, funding could come from federal, state or private sources, or a combination of the three.

After their presentation, which started at 5 p.m., Michael and Peterson opened the floor to public comment.

They were lambasted.

They fielded numerous difficult questions and were booed when they were unable to answer some of them despite stating earlier in the evening that not all the questions can be answered until detailed study takes place.

The meeting was supposed to end at 7 p.m., but people were still making comments and did not leave, so school custodial staff unsuccessfully turned lights off twice in an attempt to get them to go. The meeting wrapped up an hour late.

Notification apparently had not been sent to some local newspapers, so those in attendance wanted the comment period extended. Three women said they asked MnDOT to publish notice of all the Zip Rail meetings — two were held in Rochester and Inver Grove Heights earlier in the week — in the local papers but that hadn’t been done.

Peterson responded that MnDOT made every attempt to get word out about the meeting. She said she will request the time period to be extended but couldn’t guarantee MnDOT will agree.

One woman showed a very small notification article that she had clipped from a paper.

Heather Arndt owns farmland in Goodhue County and drove from Oklahoma that day to attend the meeting. Arndt said she paid for the notifications and apologized that they were so small.

Her announcement surprised people. After they realized MnDOT had not placed the notifications, they angrily asked Peterson if MnDOT’s intent was to leave them in the dark.

Peterson denied the accusations.

Arndt then voiced opposition to the project, saying the area has karst geology that is unsafe for high-speed trains. She said the project will be detrimental to agriculture.

Goodhue County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel said the high-speed rail would split farms into parcels that couldn’t be accessed and would interfere with current roads that get livestock and crops to market and provide access for emergency vehicles and school buses.

“This project will affect our economy in bad ways,” he said. He counted 40-plus intersections that could be affected by the rail project. These roads, he said, would either have to be closed or built up over the tracks, which would be very expensive.

“You are asking a lot out of the folks in Goodhue County, who will get nothing out of this. This is a tremendous undertaking with serious repercussions, and I don’t see much benefit for Goodhue County residents,” Rechtzigel said.

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