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Study by Minnesota 2020 urges state lawmakers to get the ball rolling on regional railroad lines

WILLMAR -- Shannon Klint looks forward to the day that a passenger train might take her and her family from the Twin Cities to visit her parents in Willmar.

"It would change my life," she said Wednesday morning.

Klint took part in a conference call to discuss a new study by Minnesota 2020, a think tank that often studies issues affecting rural Minnesota.

The study looks at the feasibility of developing regional rail lines in the coming years and urges the state to move ahead with its share of funding.

Preliminary studies are already under way for the Northern Lights Express, which would provide high-speed rail service between Minneapolis and Duluth. Minnesota is a member of the Midwest Regional Rail System, which is promoting a high-speed rail system that would include a line from Minneapolis to Chicago.

The Minnesota 2020 report suggests that the state provide funding and seek federal funding for those two lines first.

Other ideas that are not as far along in the planning stage: a high-speed line from along Interstate 35 from the Twin Cities to Des Moines; a line from Willmar to Minneapolis and a rail connection between Rochester and Minneapolis. The regional line to Willmar has been championed by Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, and Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City. In the transportation bill passed by the Legislature this year, the rail line along Highway 12 was officially named the Little Crow Transit Way. Plans for the line are in the very early stages.

Klint grew up on the family farm north of Big Kandi Lake, and her parents still live there.

The two-hour drive out to visit her parents can be a long one with three young daughters, 5-year-old twins and a 6-year-old.

Klint, a high school Spanish teacher who lives between Stillwater and North St. Paul, said she and her husband would be able to relax on a train trip to see her parents. They could read with their daughters and have "better family time," she said.

In the case of a line to Willmar, she added, "The tracks are already there."

According to the Minnesota 2020 report, increased rail traffic could increase safety, save energy and relieve highway congestion in the state. Economic development could thrive along rail lines, too.

The Chicago and Duluth lines are expected to cost between $700 million and $750 million.

However, they would be eligible for federal funding if President Bush signs a transportation bill that includes $13 billion over five years for passenger rail projects.

The state's share of those two projects would be about $150 million, which could be part of a legislative bonding bill.

The federal transportation bill passed with a veto-proof majority in both houses, and Bush is expected to sign it, said Conrad deFiebre, a transportation fellow with Minnesota 2020 who worked on the report.

With federal grants potentially paying 80 percent of the cost, it could cost the state about $150 million in bonding money to move ahead with plans for the first two lines.

"It is a terrific bargain that Minnesota should not pass up," deFiebre said.

Early efforts to fund more commuter rail lines have been vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but public sentiment seems to support it.

Minnesota 2020 commissioned a poll in which 72 percent of the respondents said the state should be exploring regional rail lines, said Matt Entenza, the group's founder and chairman of the board.

Durban Keeney, a program manager in Duluth for the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, said a regional rail system would be a big help for veterans.

Many programs have van services to take veterans to medical appointments, "but it's just not enough," Keeney said. Vans often have rigid schedules, and it can be difficult to schedule appointments, he added.

Rail service would be a "wonderful resource to help our veterans."