Trains For America

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Is Minnesota falling behind in Midwest HSR planning?

A section of rail close to my own heart, high-speed upgrades to the Amtrak line from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Chicago is a key part of the larger Midwest High-Speed Rail plan. But the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the state, under the leadership of Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, doesn’t quite have its acts together to the extent that neighboring Wisconsin does. Most of the corridor from Chicago would be in that state, whose governor recently toured Spain’s AVE high-speed system.

Twice, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has vetoed funds for an environmental impact statement and preliminary engineering. And the state has not completed its comprehensive rail plan, which would set priorities and put in context freight lines and the multiple passenger rail lines being considered.

Yet now that the federal government might be footing much of the bill through the stimulus plan, Pawlenty seems to have changed his tune. And, as is often the case in Minnesota, the governor is working against a large Democratic legislative majority that is generally in favor of a stronger transportation policy. Minnesota Public Radio has an interview with State Senator Katie Sieben, who, unusually for a politician, seems to have a strong grasp of what needs to be done to get trains rolling.

[Pawlenty’s] spokesman, Brian McClung, has indicated the governor “intends to aggressively position Minnesota to compete for stimulus funds for one or more rail lines, possibly including high-speed rail to Chicago.” He’s already begun work with Doyle in identifying areas where Wisconsin and Minnesota can cooperate. High-speed rail would fit that mission perfectly.

Most important, Pawlenty’s appointment of Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel brings both administrative and engineering experience and expertise that will be crucial in competing for and taking full advantage of the high-speed rail opportunity. His steady hand will be especially welcome on a project like this one, where the lack of hard information — for example, about the size of Minnesota’s financial commitment — has yet to be determined.

This is Minnesota’s game to lose. Stronger rail links to Chicago would be a boon for Minneapolis-St. Paul, especially if plans to move service from the dingy and inconvenient Midway Station to St. Paul’s grand and soon-to-be-light-rail-connected Union Depot go ahead. But if plans fall through, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a hostile and obstructionist governor has prevented the state from moving towards the future along with its neighbors.

Filed under: Amtrak, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail, , ,

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