Viewpoint: Rail getting new life
Investing in passenger rail has taken on new life across the country as the Obama administration has set a goal of developing a better passenger rail network. This goal is being compared to that of President Dwight Eisenhower when he approved the construction of the U.S. interstate highway system back in the 1950s.
To guide this investment, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, at the request of the Minnesota Legislature, has developed a draft Comprehensive Statewide Freight and Passenger Rail Plan. This plan lays out a 20-year vision for new and upgraded passenger and freight rail improvements to address growth in population and freight shipments that will occur over the coming decades.
For Minnesota, upgrading and expanding our freight and passenger rail lines will provide a boost to our state's economy, while providing cost-effective choices for residents that reduce our environmental impact. During construction, the state will see new construction jobs and direct supplier purchases. Once built, the investments will not only provide direct and indirect multiplier effects as dollars circulate in local economies; they will also reduce out-of-pocket costs for users, provide time savings and gains in safety from a reduction in accidents.
Development of intercity passenger rail service that would link the Twin Cities with the Chicago Hub high speed rail network, the national Amtrak system, and with major regional trade centers is the primary focus of the passenger rail component of the plan.
The plan divides passenger rail service into two categories -- high speed passenger rail (up to 110 mph) and enhanced conventional passenger rail (79-90 mph). The priority high speed rail corridors include service from the Twin Cities to Chicago, Duluth and Rochester. The network from Minnesota to Chicago would initially follow its most logical link in the corridor along the Mississippi River, a path already fitted with rail lines, and could eventually link other cities including Rochester.
The priority enhanced conventional passenger rail corridors would provide service from the Twin Cities to St. Cloud, Mankato, Fargo, Eau Claire, and service between Minneapolis and St. Paul. All services would eventually connect to both the new Minneapolis downtown terminal and the St. Paul Union Depot.
Freight rail improvements will also be critical to the future health of our state's economy as shipments of products and commodities increase. Transportation services will continue to be required to support agriculture, mining and other industries, generating jobs and encouraging private investment in our state. Freight needs and passenger rail needs will be coordinated in certain corridors providing multiple benefits for track improvements.
The long-term vision for rail in Minnesota is ambitious and the development of the plan will need to occur incrementally. A range of financing options will be needed both for public sector entities -- federal, state and local governments -- and the private railroads to make the vision a reality. Minnesota has shown a commitment to funding planning efforts, capital investments and operations for rail service, including funding for the Northstar Commuter Rail line, the Northern Lights Express, and the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, as well as providing matching funds for federal dollars. That commitment needs to continue into the future.
The draft Comprehensive Statewide Freight and Passenger Rail Plan is available online at http://www.dot.state.mn.us/planning/railplan/resources.html. Comments from the public and interested stakeholders are being accepted by the Department of Transportation. Comments must be submitted by 4:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, 2010, to be considered in the official record. Here's your chance to take a look at a vision for our state's future and provide your input on how we move people and products in the coming decades.
Myra Peterson is a Washington County commissioner.