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Montana rail authority keeping tabs on infrastructure bill pending in Congress

Missoula County taking the lead on passenger rail push
Posted at 12:37 PM, Sep 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-09 14:37:29-04

MISSOULA — Members of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority are calling out a reporting error by one Missoula media source that grossly elevated the cost of restoring passenger rail to Montana’s southern tier.

They also remain optimistic that funding set aside in the infrastructure bill now before Congress could help move passenger service closer to reality.

The rail authority’s president, Dave Strohmaier, recently noted an error reported by one Missoula media outlet that placed the cost of restoring the old North Coast Hiawatha route at $66 billion.

No such figure has ever been presented, and the economic study behind the route hasn’t been completed.

“That (figure) is not the case,” Strohmaier said. “$66 billion is in the bipartisan infrastructure bill for the totality of freight and passenger rail across the entire U.S. If only we had that sum of money for our route.”

The rail authority, which will consist of 16 southern Montana counties next month, recently convened a summit in Lewistown, which included a keynote speaker from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Strohmaier said the rail authority has caught the attention of decision-makers in Washington, D.C.

“They’re very well aware of our efforts and accomplishment out here in Montana, as is the upper echelon of U.S. Department of Transportation,” he said. “Right now, we’re just in a waiting game to see what the U.S. House does later in the month with surface transportation reauthorization and the bipartisan infrastructure package.”

The Senate last month passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which has since moved to the House and is pending a vote later this month. While the bill remains mired in Washington politics, those watching the process remain optimistic.

“If it passes, we’ll be working closely with both Amtrak and the Department of Transportation to figure out next steps,” Strohmaier said. “It’s yet to be determined who will be applying for what, but we’ll be working closely with all other parties.”

The infrastructure bill includes $12 billion for passenger rail. Of that, Strohmaier said, 20% must go to long-distance routes, “such as the one we’re talking about right now.”