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For Willmar, the city's big rail days may still be waiting down the line

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West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Willmar's glory days as a railroad hub may still be ahead.

America is on the verge of investing in its rail passenger and freight systems on a level akin to the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, Dave Christianson, project manager with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, told an audience in Willmar on Wednesday evening.

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He is part of a MnDOT team drafting a plan for the Legislature on how Minnesota should make its investment. Willmar is currently on the plan's map as one of the corridors being proposed for passenger service to the Twin Cities. The Little Crow Transit Corridor on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway line parallel to U.S. Highway 12 is proposed as part of the second phase of corridor developments, according to the plan.

It is behind Duluth, St. Cloud, Mankato and possibly Rochester, where higher passenger numbers are projected.

Ridership for a Willmar to Twin Cities line is projected at 100,000 annually, which puts this corridor in league with corridors between Minneapolis and Fargo, N.D., Red Wing and Winona.

The state's support for the Little Crow corridor is buoyed by federal interest as well, according to Christianson and Dan Krom, co-project manager for the study. They said that Amtrak has also identified the route from Minneapolis to Willmar and continuing to Marshall and Sioux Falls, S.D., as its preferred route for an expansion of service to the southern U.S.

It's all part of a national investment in railroad transportation being jump started by Congressional action to invest $8 billion in rail development. It is expected to be only the start: Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and head of the House transportation committee, is proposing another $50 billion for the next six-year transportation program.

Christiansen said that current projections show that freight moved by rail will increase by 25 to 45 percent over the next 25 years.

The state's plan calls for upgrading all of the state's 4,500 miles of rail line so that trains can move faster and carry heavier cars. The goal is to see all lines upgraded to 25 mph traffic. The primary corridors -- some of which would carry both freight and passenger service -- would be upgraded to 79 mph and 110 mph.

The plans also will likely include higher speed -- 150 mph -- connections to link the Twin Cities with Chicago.

Reps. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, and Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, were joined by State Senator Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, in supporting the return of passenger service on the Little Crow corridor. "It's important to maintain the vitality of our communities out here,'' Urdahl said.

But he and Juhnke also expressed concerns that the line was part of the second phase of projects. Juhnke said he feared that at one time, a four-lane highway to Willmar was a "phase two'' proposal.

The MnDOT officials said that plans are for a long-term, "incremental'' rail development. The federal government is expected to offer 80 percent of the development costs, but what Christianson called the "elephant in the room'' will be finding the funding sources for the on-going operation and maintenance needs.

And like the development of the interstate highway system, the costs are immense. The draft plan's recommendations for freight improvements alone carry a $3.8 billion price tag. Shared passenger and freight improvement needs could cost anywhere from $7.2 billion to $8.4 billion; the high priority projects on the list represent $5.3 billion of the costs.

The state's rail plan is still in the draft stages and will be presented to the Legislature in February. To learn about the plan or to comment, visit www.dot.state.mn.us/planning/railplan or e-mail @dot.state.mn.us

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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