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Legislative News and Views - Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R)

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Thursday, October 1, 2015

When government attempts to hide something from its citizens, those citizens have a right to be suspicious.


Our latest example is brought to you by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) from its discussions surrounding the proposed high speed rail line from the Metro Area to Rochester.


Almost all of us have heard of the Zip Rail line that would extend from the Twin Cities to Rochester. This plan is currently undergoing an environmental study while MnDOT requests millions for passenger rail service, including Zip Rail.


Recently the North American High Speed Rail Group (NAHSR) entered the fray. It's looking to build a high speed rail line from Bloomington to Rochester along the Highway 52 corridor, supposedly on its own.


So what do we know about this outfit?


First, according to a Rochester Post Bulletin report, MnDOT and the rail group are working on a Memorandum of Understanding that would designate NAHSR as the sole entity authorized to study, design, construct and operate the proposed rail line. In other words, it wants exclusive negotiating rights to build it.


Of the stated $4.2 billion construction plan (it would likely be significantly more), roughly one-third would be paid for through foreign investors and governments, with Chinese interests specifically mentioned in the article.


Secondly, according to a report by, NAHSR has federal approval to launch Liberty Minnesota Regional Center, an EB-5 immigrant investment center which provides permanent green cards to foreign investors who invest $500,000 to $1 million in businesses or economic development projects that create or preserve at least 10 jobs for U.S. workers.


And you thought the cone of silence disappeared after Get Smart went off the air.


This is covert behavior being displayed by your state government and it is unacceptable. Both parties say the process is just in the talking stages. If not for some hungry reporters we wouldn't even know about this talking stage.


I recently wrote a letter to the Federal Rail Administration to share my growing concerns over this project and to relay the numerous issues that are causing elevated angst levels from my constituents. They include:


Lack of Transparency. The stated FRA process of an open, publically engaged fact-finding mission for Zip Rail simply isn't happening. We've seen multiple examples of public meetings either not posted or publicized in local papers, delayed, or abruptly canceled, creating the impression that public input really isn't wanted because the high speed rail outcome has already been predetermined. Some of the cities that would fall within the proposed corridor were never notified of upcoming meetings.


Authenticity of Community Advisor Committee. This group seems to be nothing more than a rubber-stamp assembly purposed to create the illusion of seeking community input while “checking-the-box” for the FRA approval process. To date, it's held one meeting.


Lack of Support for Zip Rail. My constituents aren't the only ones expressing doubt. Last session the Minnesota House passed a bill that prohibits the use of government money to fund a Zip Rail project, ensures that eminent domain will not be used to build it, and requires any developer to demonstrate the ability to pay for the full costs if Zip Rail fails. There have been numerous formal resolutions and strongly-worded letters of opposition to Zip Rail from many Minnesota cities, townships, counties, farm groups and individual citizens. None of these entities finds public benefit from the proposal.


MnDOT not performing its duty as an unbiased third party arbitrator. From allowing privately funded studies to serve as public documents to holding hush-hush negotiations with NAHSR, the recent actions of the agency appear dubious at best to property owners and local governments along the proposed line.


Let's call this high speed rail idea exactly what it is: a nice-to-have that would eventually help expand the wallet sizes of the City of Rochester, the Mayo Clinic, corporate interests, and potentially the Chinese government. It is not - nor will it ever be - a need, and by attempting to avoid public scrutiny its project review process has now turned shady. All of this problematic.  


The appearance of fundamental corruption should make everyone pause, and moving forward the FRA must be fully aware of the problems that exist with Rochester's high speed rail proposal.