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Legislators find flaws in rail plan

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WILLMAR -- Local legislators noticed something odd in a new map of future rail proposed in Minnesota -- none of the highest priority lines were in west central or southwestern Minnesota.

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When the Minnesota Department of Transportation Freight and Passenger Rail Plan was released Thursday, State Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, made note of the problems he saw in the plan and sent off a short e-mail letter about it.

"Once again, southwest and west central Minnesota are being ignored and/or treated like second class Minnesota citizens when it comes to this plan," Juhnke said in a note to MnDOT officials.

State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said he shares Juhnke's concerns.

Both lawmakers said the report contains good news and bad news.

"Finally, someone is actually looking at rail; that's something that's been lacking for years," Juhnke said.

And a passenger rail line from Minneapolis to Willmar to Sioux Falls, called the Little Crow Line, is listed as a future project in the plan.

The plan endorses a high-speed rail line between the Twin Cities and Chicago. The plan also recommends that Minneapolis and St. Paul both have stops on the line, expected to cost more than $1 million.

The rail plan for the state also describes passenger rail service to St. Cloud, Moorhead, Mankato and Eau Claire, Wis. It does not address the politics of choosing a route through southeastern Minnesota.

The problem is that any mention of a line the Little Crow Line is relegated to a second tire of proposed projects, and that makes it less likely that Willmar will see passenger rail service any time soon.

"MnDOT has previously said one of their goals by 2030 is to have all Tier 1 and Tier 2 projects done," Urdahl said. "Still, I don't think we should be Tier 2. ... Once again west central Minnesota is getting short shrift."

Juhnke said he believes the plan was crafted with an eye toward receiving money from specific federal grant programs rather than considering what would be best for the state and its citizens.

"We're really the only area of the state that got labeled a Tier 2 route," he said.

The entire process concerned him, he said. When the first open houses to discuss the plan were held, Willmar wasn't included, even though it has a major railroad yard, he said.

Both legislators said they were concerned because the area has been low on transportation priority lists before.

"We don't have a four-lane highway, we don't have a major airport serving this part of the state, and we don't have passenger rail service," Urdahl said.

"I just don't think there should be two Minnesotas," Juhnke said.

The plan does not lay out "a vision that looks at rural areas and how things work there," Juhnke said.

Because legislators from this area and other parts of the state are likely to question the conclusions of the report, it's likely to be an issue when the Legislature convenes in February, Juhnke added.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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