Opposing viewpoint: Speaker opposing Zip Rail – updated

One of my constituents shared with me a video of a Randell O’Toole discussing reasons not to support Zip Rail.  In general, I have been supportive of Zip Rail but I did appreciate some of the points the speaker made.  While I am supportive of the Zip Rail in concept, I will ultimately base my decision on the numbers that they can provide.  I do think that rail is the best form of transportation between regional centers where local transit systems are available at both ends.

Here are some of my reactions:

  1. This process should be dictated by data.  I don’t believe that we can recoup the capital costs for a rail line, however we should be able to fund the operating costs with a combination of user fees and value capture districts.
  2. The driverless car revolution that is coming is going to be amazing however I question relying on that technology before it is here.  I also wonder if the energy consumption per trip will be able to compete with modern rail.  Air travel between RST and MSP is just horribly inefficient in terms of energy consumption.
  3. The comparison to flights between Rochester and MSP is not a good one.  Best case scenario a flight will take 2.5 hours for the whole process compared to less than 1 hour for rail travel.
  4. The speaker loses credibility in my book when he mentions a report from his organization showing no change in global temperatures for 17 years.  That is just factually incorrect.
  5. I totally agree with the speaker that downtown to downtown is best.  Along with existing infrastructure Zip rail will connect downtown Rochester, Bloomington, Minneapolis, and St. Paul.  In considering downtowns, the speaker really lost touch with our situation.  He mention that only 8% of people work downtown and 0.5% live downtown.  Probably true overall but dead wrong for Rochester.  In reality half of our jobs are downtown and that is growing. Further like all cities we are seeing more and more people move downtown.  On top of that we get 3 million visitors and that is likely to double.  All of them are headed for downtown for the most part.
  6. The speaker through out a cost of 66.6 million per mile.  I have no idea what it will be, but I don’t think it will be that high.  However the price does matter.  In the short run I think designing and beginning to secure a viable route is critical regardless of the end decision.
  7. The speaker is critical of TOD and high density development yet that is where movement is nationally.  The fastest growing cities in Minnesota in the last year were Minneapolis and St. Paul.
  8. I think that part that is missing is that if air travel continues to grow building zip rail and creating a spur line to utilize Rochester’s airport as the 3rd terminal of MSP is far cheaper than building a new airport.  One or the other will likely have to happen since our current airport is landlocked.  In addition regional rail will likely extend the day in which MSP hits capacity.
  9. Our energy mix for electricity is getting cleaner every day.  This coupled with better storage technology will make rail among the cleanest of all options.
  10. Despite the speaker’s claim of no change in mode share, it is already happening.  18-24 year olds are getting licenses at the lowest rate in modern history.  40% of Minnesotans do not drive and that number is growing.
Update: so it turns out the $66.6 million was a total work of fiction by Mr. O’Toole and very misleading.


In response to Mr. O’Toole’s stated cost estimate for Zip Rail of $66.6 million per mile, that is the current cost estimate for the California High-Speed Rail project, planned from Los Angeles to San Francisco.  The differences between the California project and Zip Rail are nothing short of dramatic.

An example of one of the many differences between the two projects is that on the 500 mile long first phase of the California High-Speed Rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco, there are an estimated 25 bored or mined high speed train tunnels totaling about 50 miles in length through three mountain ranges. These tunnels represent a significant proportion of the total cost of the project.  The topography of the three mountain crossings on the project varies considerably with abrupt changes in elevation in many locations. The 25 individual bored or mined tunnels vary in length from less than 1000 feet to approximately 9 miles, and approach structures include high viaducts and embankments, and deep cut slopes.  Additional challenges that increase the cost of the project include crossing the half-dozen or so major earthquake fault zones.

In contrast, the total number of tunnels planned for Zip Rail is zero.

As you noted, data will drive the decision process.  The EIS process currently underway, and the development of the Benefit/Cost Analysis, will provide detailed information on project costs, benefits, and potential impacts.  Together, these documents will provide information sufficient for policymakers to make an informed decision on the project.

Best regards,



One comment

  1. Driverless cars, you omit the probability that they will be electric powered, now will they be more efficient in per passenger than the train, hard to predict, but keep in mind that building the rail line will use a lot of energy.
    Airport, wonder what flights would be moved to RST, perhaps vacation charters and such that are not as time sensitive,

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