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Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority grows to 9 Montana counties; others to follow

Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority grows to 9 Montana counties; others to follow
Posted at 12:29 PM, Sep 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-07 14:29:06-04

Just as a freight train rumbled past his home near the downtown railyard, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier took to Zoom this week to share news that appeared to be a long shot just eight months ago.

Efforts to establish the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority and bring back the southern passenger route across Montana are chugging down the track. Or as Strohmaier often says, the “train has left the station.”

“We’ve now officially spanned the state of Montana with Wibaux County adopting the joint resolution, and Dawson County adopted the joint resolution earlier in the week,” said Strohmaier. “I’m still in conversation with Big Horn County and hopefully that will come to the pass in the next few weeks as well. We’re where we want to be.”

The resolution marks a county’s official entry into the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which will likely include 10 counties later this month. The authority will serve as the governing body comprised of representatives from across the state who will embark on restoring the old North Coast Hiawatha Route operated by Amtrak until 1979.

Joining the rail authority requires no funding commitment. Members of the authority will work with the rail lobby in Washington, D.C., chase down grants and funding opportunities, and look for ways to bring passenger service back into operation.

The fledgling board already has the ear of Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester and is remarkable in the fact that it includes such a breadth of representation spanning the state and its diverse interests as one moves from west to east.

Missoula and Wibaux counties are as far apart geographically as they are politically, but they share a common economic interest and see the potential of passenger rail running through their cities and towns.

“We’ve been spearheading an effort to establish the first passenger rail authority in Montana, all the way from Sanders County 630 miles to the east to Wibaux County,” Strohmaier said. “This is going to happen probably in the next month. We’re waiting for a couple additional counties to run this through their public process.”

Missoula County crafted a draft resolution earlier this year and began shopping it around to test the interest of other counties and their willingness to establish a rail authority charged with restoring passenger service across Montana’s southern tier.

Strohmaier expected several urban counties to jump aboard, including Yellowstone and Lewis and Clark, but neither have. Instead, a number of rural counties have joined the endeavor, the first being Dawson County in eastern Montana.

Sanders, Park and Prairie counties soon followed, as did Broadwater, Jefferson and Butte Silver Bow. Their interest speaks to the state’s size and breadth, along with its changing economy, minimal infrastructure and aging demographics.

“We have no bus service and to travel by air, our constituents have to travel 175 miles to the nearest commercial flight airport,” the Prairie County Board of Commissioners wrote in a letter of support. “Because of less demand of coal, use of the southern line has dramatically reduced rail traffic, making room for other uses such as passenger train. Passenger train would be a huge asset to our elderly population for either points of final destination, or linking to other means of transportation.”

From a rural standpoint, advocates believe passenger rail could provide needed transportation to larger cities that sit miles away and perhaps provide some form of economic boost. The outlook is similar in the state’s more urban counties, where tourism, business connections and transportation options are vital.

“This is an amazing achievement to get all these counties united on the same page and moving after the same goal,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

A virtual passenger rail summit is scheduled in Missoula on Sept. 17. It will be the second summit held in the state dedicated to restoring the southern route.