MISSOULA - As the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority works to get the wheels turning on its efforts to restore a southern route across Montana, it found a new member this week that could carry sway.
Chairman Dave Strohmaier said Tuesday that the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) has joined the authority as an ex officio member.
It marks the first state agency to get behind the effort to restore passenger service along the old North Coast Hiawatha route.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” Strohmaier said.
The rail authority formed in 2019 and has been working ever since to grow its membership and bend ears in Washington, D.C.
It now claims 18 member counties across Montana’s southern tier and will likely be included in a federal study on rail restoration.
Sens. Tester and John Wicker, R-Mississippi, sponsored the language directing the U.S. Department of Transportation to complete that nationwide study of discontinued, long-distance routes, such as the North Coast Hiawatha.
With momentum growing, the rail authority will host the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Summit next month.
It has some key names in attendance, Strohmaier said, and the timing may be critical.
“We have a great lineup from this,” he said. “The administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration will be joining us, as well the assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation.”
The MDT joins the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as an ex officio member of the rail authority, along with Amtrak, Burlington Norther-Santa Fe Railway, the Crow Tribe and the Northern Cheyenne.