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Big funding comes for high-speed rail network

President Barack Obama's statement of support last month for constructing high-speed rail networks across the country -- and the accompanying $8 billion included in the federal stimulus bill -- must have rung like music in the ears of state Sen. Katie Sieben.

Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, accompanied a contingent of other local lawmakers to Washington, D.C., in January urging Minnesota's representatives in the nation's Capitol to push for federal funding for high speed rail projects. With the passage of the stimulus bill last month, they got their wish -- and more.

The $8 billion included in the stimulus, and additional $1 billion budgeted per year over the next five years, is "even higher than we were hoping for," Sieben said. "I think it's higher because the President weighed in and said he wanted it to be a priority of his. It's real exciting."

The commitment to high speed rail by Obama has Sieben and other local rail advocates like Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson excited for two reasons: Minnesota is likely to get a chunk of that money to fund track improvements needed for a planned high speed rail link between the Twin Cities and Chicago; and any improvements made for high speed rail benefit the proposed Red Rock commuter rail corridor.

The billions in funding for high speed rail improvements is "absolutely critical" to the Red Rock commuter rail becoming a reality, like the Northstar line from Minneapolis to Big Lake set to open later this year, Peterson said.

"The improvements made for freight enhance the improvements made for passenger rail, and they all reduce the cost for commuter rail," Peterson said.

That's why, officials say, the stimulus funds are such a boon for not only high speed rail but also commuter rail -- the federal government could cover a huge portion of needed improvements now, saving the states millions later when implementing more commuter rail lines.

Sieben said Minnesota will apply jointly for the federal funds with Wisconsin, which needs to make track improvements between La Crosse -- where the route enters Wisconsin from La Crescent, Minn. -- to Madison.

Already, track improvements are underway between Milwaukee and Chicago, the last leg of the line.

"The stimulus money is such an exciting opportunity," Sieben said, "because there's finally money available where it's up to 100 percent of the capital costs covered."