Passenger rail took center stage today as part of the debate over the Senate's transportation budget bill. That proposal would have eliminated all $1 million in funding for MnDOT's Office of Passenger Rail. Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, offered an amendment to restore all of that funding arguing that without the office the state would miss out on the chance to apply for millions in federal rail dollars.
"It is penny wise and pound foolish to not spend this $1 million in the biennium to fund this office to leverage federal money that is available and Minnesota is very well positioned to receive," Sieben said.
But GOP Senate Transportation Committee Chair Joe Gimse voiced serious concerns about how the office has spent its money in the past. He said $630,000 of the $1 million went towards salary and benefits for the office's three employees.
That's when Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, jumped in with a compromise. He proposed allocating $600,000 for the office arguing that the state has been making significant progress when it comes to rail.
"I understand the concerns around the funding of the passenger rail office, but I do think it's important that we fund to at least to keep that office open," Howe said.
There's plenty at stake for southeast Minnesota lawmakers when it comes to rail. The cities of Red Wing and Winona have been big supporters of a proposed Chicago to Twin Cities high-speed rail line that would run along the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, Rochester leader are pushing for a high-speed rail line from the Med City to the Twin Cities called Rochester Zip Rail. They are also hoping Rochester could be a stop on a Twin Cities to Chicago high-speed rail route.
Ultimately, Howe's proposal won the Senate's backing 38 to 25. It is worth noting that all five southeast Minnesota lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — backed the funding. The funding for MnDOT's passenger rail office still remains in jeopardy. The House transportation bill completely eliminates the funding. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's budget calls for $1 million in funding for the office.