Why high-speed rail is good for Minnesota

Jerry Miller

Recent developments might have some Minnesotans questioning the level of support for high-speed rail in the Midwest and Minnesota. First, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, not always a fan of high-speed rail, was re-affirmed by Wisconsin voters in the recall election.
Then, the Anoka County Board voted to leave the coalition of governments looking into development of the Northern Lights Express (NLX) high-speed rail project from Minneapolis to Duluth.
Fortunately, Wisconsin hasn’t turned its back on passenger rail. Walker requested federal funds for high-speed rail between Milwaukee and Chicago in March 2011, and more importantly, this year Wisconsin, Minnesota and Amtrak officials began looking into possible expansion of the current passenger train service between Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities.
As for NLX, a number of local governments, including the cities of Minneapolis, Duluth and Superior, Wis., along with Hennepin, St. Louis, Isanti and Pine counties are still strong supporters.
Along the Mississippi River Route, the prospect of a high-speed rail connection between the Twin Cities and Chicago is also still moving forward. It is good for businesses and residents along the line and throughout Minnesota. Here are three reasons why.
n High-speed rail provides a safe, competitive transportation alternative. High-speed rail expands the opportunities for business people, families and senior citizens to travel to great destinations within and outside of the Mississippi River Route. Travel time and cost for passenger rail riders will be competitive with air and auto travel, and business and leisure travel passengers can avoid the parking and traffic congestion of major cities. It’s weather resistant, convenient and enjoyable for business travelers and families alike.
n High-speed rail saves money and the environment. This three-for-one investment increases the speed and frequency of passenger service, increases freight rail capacity, avoiding more expensive truck transport, and has the potential to share costs with development of the proposed Red Rock Corridor commuter rail project. Meanwhile, railroads are on average four times more fuel-efficient than trucks, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent.
n High-speed rail grows our economy.?High-speed rail along the Mississippi River Route will provide up to $2.3 billion in economic benefits for the state, according to the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative Benefit Cost and Economic Analysis, and would create 1,600 permanent jobs in Minnesota, and 15,000 construction jobs needed to complete the project. It offers an alternative means of transportation for business and tourism along the Mississippi River Route while encouraging businesses to expand their operations more widely across the region, spurring economic development.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is in the midst of a study to identify environmental impacts and areas in need of additional analysis. This report is due in late 2013. Meanwhile, the 18 members of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission are set to embark on an information campaign. It is critical that our constituents are aware of the facts about this project, and our communities have the opportunity to shape the best possible proposal.
?As high-speed rail studies continue, it is important that MnDOT and its local partners continue to emphasize a data-driven analysis for determining the benefits of high-speed rail. Based on the initial findings, high-speed rail benefits outweigh its costs, and I believe that as environmental work and engineering are completed they will reinforce the conclusion that high-speed rail is good for Minnesotans.

Jerry Miller is mayor of Winona and chairman of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission. The Minnesota Newspaper Association distributed Miller’s commentary.