MISSOULA — While the rail coaches aren’t rolling across southern Montana just yet, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority continues to gain momentum, and with billions earmarked for passenger rail in the new infrastructure bill, the timing of it all may be on their side.
This week, Custer County in eastern Montana adopted a resolution petitioning to join the state rail authority. Custer, along with Rosebud and Stillwater counties, brings to 16 the number of Montana counties across the southern tier working together to restore passenger rail after a 43-year hiatus.
“Custer is a big win in eastern Montana,” said rail authority board president Dave Strohmaier. “It would bring the number of counties to 16 who are either in or have petitioned to join. It makes for a solid block of the eastern half of the state now.”
Strohmaier, who also serves as a Missoula County commissioner, has helped spearhead the state’s passenger rail efforts over the past two years. This week, he presented to the Pacific Northwest Economic Summit and its forum on passenger rail, which has gained national partners looking to expand service to the region.
“The amount of enthusiasm and momentum is at a high point right now,” Strohmaier said.
In June, Sen. Jon Tester added an amendment to the Surface Transportation Act to study the restoration of long-distance passenger rail routes that have been discontinued.
The amendment includes language that puts former routes in the rural West, including the North Coast Hiawatha across southern Montana and the Pioneer route, which once connect Salt Lake City to Seattle, at the front of those studies.
The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is also conducting an economic study focused on restoring the North Coast Hiawatha. The National Rail Passenger Association will discuss its initial findings next week during a board conference.
Representatives from the Governor’s Office, and Sens. Tester and Steve Daines, are expected to attend.
“In addition to the funds Sen. Tester was so instrumental in getting into the Surface Transportation bill, which is now merged with the bipartisan infrastructure package, there’s significant funding to the tune of several billion dollars available for the expansion of passenger rail in this country, and our project will be a prime contender for all of this,” Stohmaier said.
While the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority gears up for its next board meeting, the Missoula City Council this week expressed support for the restoration push, and it’s likely to contribute $5,000 to the economic study.
The momentum of those restoration efforts – and the timing – has advocates optimistic.
“The infrastructure plan that Tester helped negotiate has made it through the Senate and includes significant funding to increase passenger rail in rural America, and I think Missoula is a very likely candidate as that funding becomes available. This funding would help support some of that on-the-ground work to help make sure we’re in the best position possible to receive that funding in the event that it becomes available.” - Missoula City Council member Jordan Hess
The rail authority’s next move may depend on Congress. The infrastructure bill has cleared the Senate but isn’t expected to clear the House until the fall – if the House supports it.
If it does and the bill goes to the president’s desk, Strohmaier said the rail authority is poised to make its next move.
“Once that happens, our attention will pivot to working with U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration to position ourselves for those next steps to ensure our proposed project gets analyzed properly and is on a glide path to get funded and implemented,” Strohmaier said.
The proposed route across Montana would follow a “very heavily traversed corridor” along the old North Coast Hiawatha line that provided service between 1971 and 1979 between South Dakota and Washington.
Other routes could connect to the line, including Billings to Denver and Butte to Salt Lake City. And while some questioned the rail authority’s maneuvers during last year’s pandemic, the efforts taken thus far have placed the restoration push in the right place at the right time, Stohmaier added.
“We would never be in the place we are today if we hadn’t taken that approach,” he said. “Everyone who collaborated on this was of the mind that we absolutely need to keep on the accelerator. This is precisely the time we needed to be moving forward at full steam.”