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Passenger rail group sees "opportunity" for Montana rail service from several funds

Posted at 3:39 PM, Apr 15, 2021

MISSOULA — The head of one of the largest passenger rail groups in the country says Montana shouldn't be discouraged the "Route of the Hiawatha", or southern route, wasn't included on a map of future Amtrak upgrades.

In fact, the President and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association sees several points of opportunity from the new interest in Washington over infrastructure spending.

The question of federal support continues for the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, the coalition of 12 counties pursuing the idea of Amtrak service across the "Southern Montana Route". Some passenger rail enthusiasts were discouraged with a recently-released Amtrak service plan which didn't include the route on future development through 2035.

But Jim Matthews of the Passenger Rail Association says those plans can still be amended. Plus he sees other funding opportunities, from the Biden Administration's renewed interest in infrastructure spending to pending renewal of the Surface Transportation Act.

"All of those kinds of proposals are places where you could plug in discussion about restoring the North Coast Hiawatha or some segments of it, or restoring the Pioneer or some segments of it," Matthews told BSRPA leaders during a virtual meeting Wednesday. "So there's several different angles we can go at here."

Matthews also noted the tremendous economic impact that Amtrak represents to communities in more rural areas of the country, such as Montana.

He said of the roughly $2 billion spent each year on Amtrak funding, studies have shown the total economic impact is closer to $10 billion. He told the Authority members, the question is not one of "Amtrak's profit", but rather "community profit" from that kind of economic investment.

The Rail Authority is also working to build more support, approving the drafting of a letter to Montana's Congressional delegation urging them to seek initial funds, and considering interest from Stillwater and Carbon counties to possibly join the Authority.

The group's board are also seeking support from local towns, and even counties in neighboring states. Jerry McDonald, who represents Sanders County, told the board both Bonner and Kootenai County leaders will consider letters of support before the end of the month.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority also unveiled its new logos and website, which includes a page where businesses and individuals can make donationsto help with the campaign's initial costs.