If high-speed rail comes to Minnesota, it’ll run through Winona.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration announced Tuesday that a route running along the Mississippi River is the preferred line for the proposed high-speed rail system connecting the Twin Cities to Chicago. State and federal agencies originally considered more than 30 routes before deciding that the Mississippi River line was ideal.

“It’s our view that this preferred route isn’t just a plus for cities along the line but for the whole state,” said Winona Mayor Jerry Miller, who chairs the Minnesota High-Speed Rail Commission and has spent years tirelessly advocating for the route.

The project is far from final, however. Funding isn’t secured, and an environmental review alone could take two years to complete. 

And additional details, such as  whether the train would stop in Winona, haven’t been worked out. The biggest hold-up is that in order for the project to move forward, Minnesota needs to form a partnership with Wisconsin, where state officials have not warmed to high-speed rail. In January, Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million in federal funds for a high-speed rail project, and has focused instead on improving existing Amtrak services.

“It’s all contingent on funding and getting a partner,” said Dan Krom, MnDOT’s director of passenger rail. He said total project costs could range between $2-3 billion. State and federal funds would cover a large percentage — states would pay about 20 percent, he said.

The line would feature up to six round trips each day. Travelling at 110 mph, the trains would stop at various points in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Getting from St. Paul to Chicago would take less than six hours.

Krom said one potential benefit of high-speed rail is economic development. The rail could create both short-term construction jobs and permanent jobs for train and station operators. It could also give local businesses a boost, with more people passing through cities on the rail line, he said.

Winona City Manager Larry Thompson said the line would benefit college students, particularly those commuting to the Twin Cities.

“Obviously we’re very pleased that they chose ours as the only preferred route,” Thompson said.

The next step in the process is completing an environmental impact statement to identify and mitigate any effects of the rail, work that could take up to two years.

Rochester route rejected, official shrugs

One of the rejected rail routes ran through Rochester. No big deal, an official there said Tuesday.

“I wish them well,” he said Ken Brown, vice-chair of the Olmsted County Regional Rail Alliance. “Who knows where this is going to go.”

Brown said Rochester didn’t have existing infrastructure that the project requires.

“It doesn’t surprise us that this was the conclusion they reached,” he said. “We didn’t have a problem with it.”

Tentative project timeline

November 2011: Mississippi River Line selected as preferred route.

2011-13: Environmental Impact Statement completed to determine potential effects.

2013-15: Design, engineering, and construction begins.

2016: Soonest the high-speed line could begin service.

Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation

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