High-speed rail in Minn. might still be a long way off

Northstar commuter train
A Northstar commuter rail train sits at the Target Field station in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jeff Jones

President Barack Obama Thursday announced $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail projects; Obama first proposed high-speed rail as part of his stimulus plan last year, and Minnesota has been angling to be included in the initiative.

The federal plan has an ambitious goal -- trains running at more than 200 mph between cities down the West Coast and across the Midwest.

"The lines that are being built today, for high-speed rail -- not in the United States, in the rest of the world -- would make Minneapolis-St. Paul two and a half hours away from Chicago," said Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High-speed Rail Association, based in Chicago.

Obama today pledged a $1 billion down payment for trains in and out of that city, and billions more for nine other lines. The biggest chunk of money will go to a link between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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Yet, despite the promise of better Midwestern train service, high-speed rail is still a long way from pulling into Minnesota.


The spending includes just $600,000 in planning money for the line between the Twin Cities and Madison. That's hardly a sliver of the $1.2 billion the Chicago-Twin Cities link is expected to cost, but it is the first significant federal spending on high-speed trains.

"This planning money I think will really help nail down this issue about the alignment that's been out there," said Jim McDonough, a Ramsey County Commissioner who chairs the county's regional rail authority. "Whether Rochester gets some type of connection, whether this connection goes through Wisconsin, and then into Union Depot, or whether it goes up the corridor that's been worked out for years here, up the river route, the current alignment that Amtrak provides service in."

That river route would not include a stop in Rochester. Yet Mayor Ardell Brede said he thinks the rail money announced today may ultimately be a good sign for Rochester.

The Obama administration seems to be focusing on lines that could offer trains going 200 mph or faster. Traffic along the Mississippi would keep trains there to just over 100 mph.

"If you're looking at 220 [mph], which then you're really talking true high-speed, then you have to be looking at a different route, and certainly what we've proposed would be one that could accommodate that kind of speed," Brede said.

Minnesota has plenty of rail work to do while that gets ironed out. Construction is expected to start later this year on the proposed Central Corridor light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Vice President Joe Biden also said last year that the federal government was considering funding an extension of the Northstar commuter service from Big Lake to St. Cloud. And other lines, such as commuter service to North Branch or Hastings, and a third light rail line to Eden Prairie are also on the drawing board. They all could be in line ahead of high-speed rail.