In Friday's Rochester Post Bulletin, Andrew Setterholm reported on one Olmsted County Board meeting agenda item in County closing rail grant early.
Read on its own, the article seems fairly straight forward, but read in the context of the two sets of documents embedded in our post, Meeting minutes and email reveal Olmsted County's consulting HSR engineer can't count, the piece underscores concerns citizens have had about public spending being diverted to a project that claims it will be privately funded.
Olmsted County's investment in investigating a high-speed rail project is winding down. The county's Board of Commissioners on Thursday approved up to $175,000 in expenditures to the project for 2015, but anticipated little spending in 2016.
The county had been working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation under a $2 million grant to study the financial and environmental effects of a high-speed rail line, or Zip Rail, between Rochester and the Twin Cities; the county's share of the grant was about $300,000, said Richard Devlin, county administrator, at a Thursday county board meeting. . . .
The county has made an annual transfer of funds to the Olmsted County Regional Rail Authority, between $80,000 and $100,000 each year since 2010, Devlin told the Post-Bulletin. The rail authority, made up of county board members, could have instated a tax levy but instead chose to annually transfer funds from the county's contingency account.
paid to the rail authority in the last year have gone mostly to the studies surrounding the high-speed rail project — including a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement — and to pay its primary consultant on the project, Chuck Michael, Devlin said.
MnDOT officials in October said the department would consider suspending work on the project at the conclusion of the environmental study, in order to allow a private group to pursue the project without public support.
The North American High Speed Rail Group, a private company, has estimated the project to cost upward of $4 billion and has been seeking foreign investors.
North American High Speed Rail Group did not return a Post-Bulletin request to comment on whether the group would attempt to take on state grant funding to continue the project-related studies.
Emails and other documents obtained by a data practice request and forwarded to Bluestem Prairie flesh out the desire of the North American High Speed Rail Group to receive the benefit of that earlier spending, as well as the expertise of the consulting engineer paid by Olmsted County.
The discussion in March of how to "transition" work product from a publicly-funded project into private hands are visible particularly in three places. First, there's this broad outline of tactics to get around legal restrictions on private use of publicly funded work product:
And then, in the next three pages of documents from the data practices material, there additional discussion, including consideration of how to fend off concerns about the project on the part of Representative Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who had been contacted by constituents alarmed by the prospective of a high-speed train speeding across their counties (and no stops for them).
We particularly draw readers attention to this language:
At this time, North American High Speed Rail Group (NAHSR), a Minnesota company is requesting the transfer of all rights and responsibilities related to the completion of the Tier 1 EIS feasibility study, the service development and business plan components. Additionally, if relevant and within the county’s rights and responsibilities, the right to go ahead with development upon successful completion of the appropriate federal, regional and state level authorizations and approvals including the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
In order to successfully transition this important economic development project for Minnesota and the Southeastern region of Minnesota including: Olmsted, Goodhue, Dakota, Ramsey and Hennepin (the affected counties along the proposed corridor), the North American High Speed Rail Group requests the project management collaboration and continuity of the current Project Manager, Chuck Michael through 2015. This also allows for the significant relationships and knowledge created and cultivated at the city, county and regional levels to continue to be leveraged to the success of the project.
It's obvious that the rail group was asking for work product and project management that was paid by public dollars. Here are the three pages from which the text is drawn:
Finally, there's the transition request itself:
One final piece: the insistence by the NAHSRG's strategic director--most notably at a meeting she attended--claiming that the new private project was "very different" and that the "rail group's proposal will need its own impact statement if it proceeds" rather than the ongoing Tier 1 EIS.
The Dayton administration and MNDOT have yet to sign off on the ceding of the p, or "transition," of ZipRail project documents into private hands. As rural Minnesotans, we're startled by the request for a free soft technology transfer, since while publicly-funded research is frequently transferred into private hands, those on the receiving end pay for the privilege.
Not this crowd.
A totally different project?
Even after the
Despite the desire for the transfer of government-funded studies from the ZipRail project to the private bullet train, NAHSRG strategic director Wendy Meadley would insist that the projects are "totally different," as in this tweet to Rochester Post Bulletin reporter Josh Moniz:
Moreover, in August, Meadley represented the project as "early on — we haven't even started to study" to concerned citizens gathered in Pine Island. Moniz reported in Irreconcilable: Anti-rail group redoubles efforts:
She [Wendy Meadley] argued the group's proposal is very different than the Zip Rail proposal that has been pushed by the state for years. She said the rail group wants to fund it privately and that it's still a Minnesota company.
"We're doing something new that has never been done before in America," Meadley said.
While the project is in the preliminary stages, the rail group wants the exclusive rights [to build in the corridor] so it can determine if the project is economically viable, she said.
"This is early on — we haven't even started to study," Meadley said. "We're not trying to hide anything from people." . . .
The original Zip Rail proposal is undergoing a Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement process. The rail group's proposal will need its own impact statement if it proceeds. . . .
And yet, behind the scenes, the emails and documents in the data practices request materials suggest that the group had asked to transfer work and expertise generated by federal government grants and state and county funds to its own hands.
Images: The Snowpiercer (above); Wendy Meadley in Pine Island in August (below), photo by Andrew Link of the Post Bulletin.
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