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Missoula will host passenger rail conference this spring

Posted at 2:58 PM, Feb 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-19 16:58:58-05

Freshly returned from the statewide meeting of the Montana Association of Counties, Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday expressed optimism that a push to establish a regional rail authority will gain the traction it needs to leave the station.

But it may need more fuel to climb the mountain.

Missoula County this month unveiled a draft resolution calling for the authority’s creation, marking the first step in a growing effort to restore passenger rail service across the state’s populated southern route.

“The counties that expressed the most interest were Park and Butte-Silver Bow,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “There were a number of counties that didn’t say a word. It’s hard to gauge their thoughts on the matter. It might have been the first time they seriously considered this as a possibility. There’s work to be done.”

Still, under state law, only two counties need to sign the resolution to form the rail authority. If Park and Butte-Silver Bow signed on with Missoula County, the authority would form and begin searching for grants to conduct an objective feasibility study.

Unlike past studies, this one would focus on the potential economic benefits to communities poised along the route. The route, which last provided regular rail service in the 1970s, crosses 18 Montana counties and touches the state’s most populated cities along with dozens of rural towns.

Strohmaier confirmed Tuesday that a regional rail summit will take place in Missoula on April 17. The CEO of the Rail Passengers Association is slated to attend from Washington, D.C.

“What we’d first need to finalize the resolution is a comprehensive list of the counties that want to be founders of this,” Strohmaier said. “I’d suggest that March and April is the full-court press to see how many folks we can get to join in, and the month of May would be adoption.”

Authorized under state law, the authority could seek federal grants, lobby as an organization, or consider a voter-approved operating levy to support rail operations, among other things. Similar authorities have been established elsewhere in the country and have succeeded in attracting passenger rail service.

While several counties shrugged off the notion of restoring the southern route, the outright skeptics resided largely in counties that wouldn’t benefit from the service anyway.

“Some of this is people leaping five steps ahead,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “What a rail authority can do is apply for grant money to do a study to find out how much money this could generate. What are the economic benefits? We don’t even know yet, and there were people jumping way ahead.”

Missoula County commissioners plan to follow up with those counties that expressed interest or were undecided during the meeting last week in Great Falls.

“It was an awkward space to have a good, generative conversation,” said Commissioner Juanita Vero. “It’s so preliminary.”