Are rail plans dead?
Plans to privately fund a high-speed rail line connecting Rochester and the Twin Cities appear to be losing steam.
A group known as North American High Speed Rail Group had been pursuing a $4.2 billion plan to build the rail line. However, over the past year, the company has lost its top strategist and broken off communication with local and state officials — raising doubts about its ability to follow through with the project.
Reached this week, Olmsted County commissioner and longtime rail proponent Ken Brown told us: "There is no current activity I am aware of that is pursuing building the rail connection." Additionally, a spokesperson for MnDOT confirmed to us that the agency has not heard from anyone involved in the project since 2016.
A link to what was North American's website now redirects to a page titled, "Minnesota Corridor." The page provides no information or opportunities for contact. We attempted to reach Wendy Meadley, who previously served as the group's chief strategy officer; however, she did not respond to our request for comment.
If North American is unable to move forward with its proposal, it would be a major setback in the years-long push to build a commuter line between Rochester and the Twin Cities.
In early 2016, MnDOT suspended its work on the project known as "Zip Rail," in part because of resistance from rural Minnesota lawmakers. But just as hopes for a publicly-funded rail line began to fade, the North American group came along with an ambitious plan to fund the project using only private dollars.
Initial plans from the company called for an 84-mile elevated rail line along U.S. 52 from Bloomington to Rochester. Internal documents showed that trains would reach speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, making for a half-hour travel time each way.
In an attempt to bring the project to life, North American had been pitching the concept to Chinese investors. In September 2016, a delegation from China Railway Corporation — the country's national railway operator — visited Rochester and met privately with a group of local leaders. "This could be the real deal," Mayor Ardell Brede told us at the time. "They're very serious."
Since that point, though, there have been no updates on the status of their efforts. It remains unclear whether those involved with the project are stalling or abandoning the idea altogether. If built today, the rail line would be the first high-speed rail project in the U.S. to be fully funded by private investment.
Follow Sean on Twitter.
Cover: Rendering of now defunct Zip Rail plan