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How two Minnesota GOP lawmakers derailed high-speed train plans

ST. PAUL — A pair of Republican state lawmakers have effectively derailed — at least for now — plans for so-called "high-speed" passenger train service between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

All they needed to do was object.

"It's in effect like a one-person veto," said Sen. Scott Newman, one of the two lawmakers who put the brakes on a vision that has been in the works since the 1990s and has, over the years, received bipartisan support.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation suspended work on the current phase of the project — a mostly completed series of studies costing $1.2 million — after Newman, R-Hutchinson, and Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, blocked a part of those funds: $182,162 to finish an environmental study.

Blame Wisconsin

In interviews, both lawmakers said they don't necessarily object to the idea of the project, which seeks to run passenger trains of up to 110 mph between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago, cutting the time of the journey to about 4½ hours, down from nearly eight hours today at a top speed of 79 mph. The soonest any such trains could run is 2028, after about $1 billion more has been spent.

But spending any more money is pointless, they said, because Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has steadfastly opposed the project as "runaway government spending." In 2010, Walker rejected federal funding for a similar high-speed project between Madison and Milwaukee, declaring it "dead."

MNDOT continued to work on the project, including Wisconsin's portion, with a $1.2 million Obama-era stimulus grant that was composed of half federal and half state taxpayer funds. (The Minnesota funds only studied Minnesota's portion of the train line.)

'One-person veto'

Newman and Torkelson blocked MNDOT's funds via a mechanism unknown to most Minnesotans: the Minnesota Legislative Advisory Commission.

The commission reviews state funding requests that are tied to federal funds — such as the Twin Cities to Milwaukee High Speed Rail Corridor to Chicago, as the project is formally known. Newman and Torkelson each chairs the transportation finance committee in the Senate and House, respectively, giving each a seat on the Legislative Advisory Commission when it comes to transportation funds.

If a single commission member objects to any spending, the spending is blocked, which is why Newman called it a "one-person veto."

On Dec. 1, both Newman and Torkelson sent a letter to a top staffer on the commission saying, in part, "I am writing to object ..." And it was done.

In theory, MNDOT could have appealed the objection, but Dan Krom, director of passenger rail for MNDOT, said there would have been little point.

"The political reality of the message was they didn't want us to finish the work we're doing and we decided to follow that direction," he said Thursday, Jan. 11. "Support ebbs and flows. The original $26 million in (funding to begin studies) came from the (former Republican Gov. Tim) Pawlenty administration. And (former Wisconsin Gov.) Tommy Thompson, a Republican, was a big fan of high speed rail."

Both Torkelson and Newman said if the state of Wisconsin were to change its stance and get back on board, they wouldn't necessarily be opposed to resuming work, which at this point, consists of studies of ridership projections, construction costs and environmental impacts.

2nd train to Chicago moving ahead

The news was a bit of gut punch to high-speed rail advocates.

"The Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission is very disappointed," according to a statement Thursday from the High-Speed Rail Commission, which was formed to oversee the various ways to make faster, more frequent and more reliable passenger trains.

Commission Chairwoman and Ramsey County Commissioner Janice Rettman said that mission continues as planning for a second daily train from St. Paul's Union Depot to Chicago as part of an expansion of Amtrak's Empire Builder line.

"The second train is our focus right now," she said. "And that's much more imminent."

The cost of the second train is being studied currently. The earliest it could be running is 2021.

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