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Rail advocates look to Tuesday election

Dan Krom, director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Passenger Rail, speaks to advocates of a high-speed rail corridor between St. Paul and Chicago at St. Paul's Union Depot Wednesday. "The demand is there," he said of the project.1 / 2
Proponents of a high-speed rail line between St. Paul and Chicago hope the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul will serve as a major hub for the project.2 / 2

ST. PAUL -- Advocates of a high-speed rail line connecting St. Paul and Chicago have long sought completion for the project within the decade.

But some say those predictions, echoed here at a "High-Speed Rail Summit" Wednesday, are clouded by the upcoming election and what it could mean for garnering needed state and federal funding for the project.

"Rather than cheerleading, we need to be realistic about this," said state Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. "One has to at least raise the possibility that next week, this whole context might be different."

Elected officials, business groups and labor representatives gathered in the Union Depot to rally support for the project, which could include a Red Wing stop if officials opt to utilize existing tracks along the Mississippi River.

Advocates hope the depot, currently undergoing major renovation, will be a regional hub for the rail line once it is completed.

Hausman, a member of a state transportation committee, argued that changes in state and national government could pose a major challenge for efforts to raise money for the line.

On the national level, the tight race between Rep. Jim Oberstar and Republican challenger Chip Cravaack -- and the prospect of Democrats losing control of the U.S. House -- raises the possibility that Oberstar, an advocate of local rail projects, would no longer chair the influential House Transportation Committee.

Locally, Hausman pointed to the heated Wisconsin gubernatorial race between Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, and Republican Scott Walker, who has spoken out in opposition to the project.

A changing political climate means rail advocates will have to reach out to business groups and others traditionally supportive of Republican candidates to build bipartisan support for the line, Hausman said.

"Transportation has never been a partisan issue," she said.

State Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, told the R-E Thursday that there is "no secret" that a Republican-controlled House would significantly delay the St. Paul-Chicago corridor.

"If they take control of the House, a lot of these initiatives would come to a screeching halt," said Murphy, a supporter of the project who chairs the Minnesota Senate Transportation Committee and who is leaving office.

Others downplayed claims that Tuesday's election will greatly impact the project.

State Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said Thursday that such claims "border on scare tactics," but added that rail projects would face stiff competition for funding in a time of tight budgets.

He pointed to other priorities that would need to be managed before the state could focus on high-speed rail projects, though he said he would support the line coming through Red Wing if it was built.

"I just think things would have to be judged on their merit for everything they might produce," he said.

Goodhue County Commissioner Ron Allen, who was at the meeting Wednesday, said he was "uncomfortable" with Hausman's remarks. He argued that concerns about a delay to the project ignore a key point: rail projects take time.

Allen, who serves as vice chair of the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission, said that given the economic benefits of high-speed rail, both parties would eventually find compromises for funding.

"I think both sides see rail as a very important way forward," he said.