Zip Rail dreams

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Planners of a proposed high-speed passenger rail link between the Twin Cities and Rochester, Minn., have narrowed their focus to eight possible routes out of 1,200 combinations originally considered. In general, the surviving options would connect downtown Rochester and the Mayo Clinic with St. Paul’s Union Depot or Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, mostly along either U.S. Hwy. 52 or Hwy. 56.

Public meetings are scheduled late this month in Rochester, Inver Grove Heights and Kenyon to update progress on the project, dubbed Zip Rail and touted as offering “a convenient, cost effective, reliable and safe passenger rail transportation alternative that will meet forecasted population and economic growth, mobility demands in the corridor and connect intercity economic centers.”

A 53-page “scoping document” issued Monday by the Minnesota Department of Transportation will be open to public comment through Aug. 6. It contains few specifics besides a goal of 45-to-50-minute service at 150 miles per hour or more with at most one intermediate stop in southern Dakota County. There’s not even the hint of a cost estimate. The next major step, completion of preliminary engineering and Tier Two environmental studies, isn’t expected until 2019.

As noted before in this space, more than a decade after its first feasibility study Zip Rail remains a very long shot for the foreseeable future. Even the project website calls it, “indeed a bold initiative.”

No railroad line has existed between between Minnesota’s two largest population centers since the 1960s, meaning that a costly, contentious process of securing a route through a virtual “flyover land” of southern Minnesota would be inevitable. And while there are stirrings of a U.S. renaissance for fast passenger trains, the real action has involved efforts to link much bigger city pairs — San Francisco-Los Angeles, Dallas-Houston, and Orlando-Miami.

The latter two of those are being promoted by private interests, which has tamped down most ideological opposition from conservatives. The publicly funded California true high-speed project faces continued controversy and steep costs in the tens of billions of dollars. Other federally supported passenger rail improvements have involved shared freight tracks where top speeds can’t top 125 m.p.h.

But the best hope for Zip Rail and all the other dreams of a passenger train revival may lie in the fate of All Aboard Florida, the Florida East Coast Industries subsidiary that expects to begin running 32 fast trains a day in 2016 over railbed laid more than a century ago by Henry Flagler. As I reported from sunny Florida last winter, the project has engendered strident anger in small towns along the way where the trains won’t stop.

But, as Henry Grabar pointed out in an Atlantic Citylab blog, this bold initiative enjoys significant unique advantages. These include a $215 million state-funded terminal at the Orlando airport, also served by a new commuter rail line, and ownership of 15 acres of property prime for “value capture” development around stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. To boot, Florida tourism, the nation’s richest, spurs 500 million trips a year between All Aboard Florida’s destination cities.

Even with most of the 240 miles of right-of-way already in place, however, the project’s cost is estimated at $2.5 billion, more than half to be financed with a federal loan. So it’s easy to see why, according to David Levinson at the University of Minnesota, it’s been more than 100 years since the last significant private investment in U.S. intercity passenger rail.

Grabar says a big question remains, “whether All Aboard Florida is the exception to private U.S. passenger rail or the new rule?” Its success or failure will weigh heavily on the prospects of public initiatives like Minnesota’s Zip Rail, too.