Passenger rail planners are narrowing down about 15 potential routes for a high-speed train between Rochester and the Twin Cities, aiming to capture the most riders and potentially pique the interest of a private funder.
The proposed train, known as the Zip Rail, would likely originate in downtown Rochester at the northwest quadrant of North Broadway and Civic Center Drive — blocks from the Mayo Clinic campus and the Mayo Civic Center that just received $35 million in state bonding for an expansion.
But planners are still weighing options for where the trains will go when they arrive in the Twin Cities — the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, St. Paul’s renovated Union Depot or both.
Though the recently completely Target Field Station in Minneapolis could serve passenger rail, it’s not under consideration at this point because it would be too difficult to bring trains through fully built-out parts of Minneapolis, according to Dan Krom, a project manager with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s passenger rail division. He said the project aims to take as little right of way as possible.
The airport and Union Depot connections would serve one of the line’s core ridership groups — a portion of Rochester’s 3 million annual visitors, said Chuck Michael, project manager for the Olmsted County Regional Railroad Authority. Planners also are focusing on daily commuters, whose ranks are expected to grow as the $5.5 billion Destination Medical Center redevelopment around the Mayo Clinic gets underway, and on travelers from Rochester who would normally drive to catch a flight at MSP.
Understanding travel patterns and target ridership for the train will help market it to potential private partners, Michael said. Advocates hope to demonstrate that the baseline ridership could pay for the train’s operating costs and eventually generate income. The capital cost to build the train has been estimated at $1 billion.
“We think there’s a great potential on the private side,” he said.
In Texas, a privately held railway company’s plans to build a 200-mph bullet train from Dallas to Houston are gaining momentum. The Texas Central Railway is partnering with JR Central, the company behind Japan’s famed high-speed rail between Tokyo and Osaka that carries 391,000 passengers daily, to bring a similar model to life there.
The train would make the trip in about 90 minutes compared to a four-hour drive on oft-congested Interstate 45. Nearly 50,000 Texans travel between the two cities more than once a week on I-45, according to a statement from Houston Mayor Annise Parker. The commute is projected to take closer to seven hours by 2035.
Ordinarily building a high-speed train from a city the size of Rochester wouldn’t make sense, but the number of
people already going back and forth to the Twin Cities is unusual and could support the investment, Michael said. The Zip Rail would travel between the two economic centers at 180 to 220 mph.
Securing private partners could help move the project forward at a quicker pace, Krom said.
Federal dollars are highly competitive, and MnDOT isn’t able to leverage gas tax revenue for rail projects. So far, about $2.3 million in state and rail authority funding have been used for Zip Rail studies, Krom said.
The Rochester train is among three passenger rail lines currently under study through MnDOT, including the Northern Lights Express between the Twin Cities and Duluth and a high-speed passenger rail to Milwaukee and Chicago.
“If we were able to get a corridor done, then people can see what it can do,” Krom said.
Even with a private backer, it will be awhile before the trains roll. After the current Zip Rail study finishes up around the first quarter of 2015, the project’s sponsors will identify a handful of routes to take into another round of environmental analysis and identify a preferred alternative, Krom said. The corridor could be under study for the next five years.
As Rochester and the Mayo campus continue to grow, so will momentum for the project, Michael said. The existing amount of commuters and visitors are already a strain on the city’s parking and the Destination Medical Center is projected to create 35,000 jobs in the next 20 years.
“The need is just much greater now,” Michael said. “We really need that transportation connection.”