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Willmar City Council member Steve Ahmann takes notes Wednesday on a rail proposal during a meeting at the Minnesota Department of Transportation's District 8 office in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Comprehensive rail plan for Minnesota unveiled during public hearing

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WILLMAR -- A statewide plan calls for investing anywhere from $6 billion to $9 billion in the next 20 years to upgrade and enhance Minnesota's ability to move freight and passengers by rail.

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The proposal, the first comprehensive rail plan Minnesota has ever tackled, was presented at a public hearing Wednesday that was aired via videoconference to Minnesota Department of Transportation district offices across the state. It will be submitted next month to the Federal Railroad Administration for approval, a move that will put Minnesota in line to receive stimulus money for its rail transportation system.

Most of those who testified Wednesday supported the plan, which was introduced at a series of open houses around the state last year for public feedback. A Sherburne County official called it "a great step in the right direction."

But representatives for the city of Willmar urged state officials to give greater priority to upgrading freight and passenger rail service to Willmar.

The plan calls for two phases: a first tier of priorities to be accomplished between 2010 and 2030, and a second tier in the more distant future, after 2030. The Willmar rail corridor is slated for development after 2030.

Mel Odens, the city engineer for Willmar, urged MnDOT officials to consider moving Willmar into the first and earlier phase of development.

"We are the gateway to southwestern Minnesota and South Dakota and to the west," he said.

An enhanced railroad system in the southwestern part of the state also will open the door to improved rail transportation northward to important hubs in Dilworth and Fargo, N.D., he said.

Steve Ahmann of the Willmar City Council called the comprehensive rail plan "very forward-thinking."

But he too asked for a higher priority for the Willmar rail corridor. Not only is the city a regional hub with the potential for business and industrial growth, but it also serves a surrounding region rich in agricultural production and ethanol manufacturing, Ahmann said.

Don't overlook Willmar, he told the MnDOT officials. "Just don't forget about us."

The public has until 4:30 p.m. Jan. 29 to submit comments. Comments can be e-mailed to StateRailPlan@dot.state.mn.us, faxed to 651-366-4248, telephoned to 651-366-3199 or mailed in writing to Minnesota Department of Transportation, Office of Passenger Rail, Mail Stop 480, 395 John Ireland Blvd., St. Paul, Minn. 55155.

As the comprehensive plan was developed, transportation officials conducted an inventory of every mile of railroad track in Minnesota and examined the state's rail transportation needs for the next two decades.

Input also was collected from more than 80 different stakeholder groups, ranging from the United Transportation Union and the Northstar Corridor Development Authority to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Rural Counties Association and the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

"Throughout the process we've had extensive public input," said Dan Krom, co-project manager and passenger rail director with MnDOT's Office of Passenger Rail.

Among the priorities set forth in the final plan: development of high-speed passenger rail service to Chicago, Duluth and Rochester, and enhancement of conventional passenger rail service to St. Cloud/Moorhead, Mankato and Eau Claire, Wis.

Freight corridors also would be maintained and upgraded to increase safety and reduce bottlenecks.

"A coordinated regional/national system would be the goal," Krom said.

The estimated cost for the first phase: $6.2 billion to $9.5 billion, with the passenger system accounting for more than half of these costs. The annual operating cost is estimated at $143 million to $182 million.

The tradeoff would be a reduction in highway and traffic congestion and a more environmentally friendly form of transportation. According to MnDOT's study, fuel efficiency on rail systems is three times better than highway vehicles.

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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