MISSOULA - For the first time in its young history, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority now claims a contiguous block of participating counties stretching from the North Dakota border across the state to the western border with Idaho.
The conglomerate of 20 counties is nearly double what the rail authority started with in the fall of 2020, and it represents roughly 33% of all Montana counties. The authority also includes three Native American reservations.
“In two years, we’ve become the largest transportation district in the state and the demographics of the map speak for itself,” said Missoula County commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who currently chairs the rail authority.
The addition of Treasure County last week gives the authority added momentum as it and other transportation districts around the county wait for the release of an anticipated study this spring by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is pushing to ensure the old North Coast Hiawatha, which crossed the state's southern tier until 1977, is included in the FRA's final Amtrak Daily Long Distance Service Study.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill in 2021 included language written by Sen. Jon Tester that directed the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to study the restoration of such long-distance routes and included $15 million in federal funding to do so.
“That study is underway as we speak, and I participated in the first Northwest Region Working Group meeting for the study in Denver two weeks ago,” Strohmaier said. “In the past 43 years, we’ve never been closer to seeing restored passenger rail service through southern Montana as we are now.”
In anticipation of the FRA report to Congress, the national Passenger Rail Association already has explored the potential benefits of restoring the North Coast Hiawatha.
Among the findings, it found that restoration of the route across Montana and six other states would generate more than $270 million in economic benefits and carry an estimated 420,000 passengers each year.
It would cost Amtrak around $68 million to operate, though the cost would be partially offset by $41 million in fares and customer revenues.
The report also found that the route would bring service to roughly 47 stops across seven states including Montana, Idaho and Washington, and as far east as Illinois. The benefits to the counties served by the stops would aggregate to around $70 million annually and generate nearly $5 million in visitor spending.
Given its potential, transportation authorities are paying attention, Strohmaier said.
“This spring, the FRA will be releasing its short list of routes to consider for restoration and over the summer they’ll release their list of priority routes,” Strohmaier said. “We’ll be doing everything in our power to ensure we’re one of those routes because in November of this year, the FRA will deliver a report to Congress with its recommendations.”
Participating counties in the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.
In December, a representative of the FRA told members of the Montana rail authority that the study will consider a wide range of factors including preferred options, prioritized inventory, estimated cost of benefits, and federal and non-federal funding.
Routes that link large and small cities will be explored, along with the economic well-being of rural areas and whether a route adds to the national network of long-distance passenger service.
If the North Coast Hiawatha makes the list, future restoration could be a game-changer for travel across southern Montana, linking rural communities to services in larger cities – something commercial air travel hasn't been able to do in the sprawling state.
The only counties absent from the organization now include Yellowstone, Lewis and Clark, Sweetgrass, Deer Lodge, Beaverhead and Madison.
“As opposed to some stereotypes about passenger rail being centered in liberal urban centers, the vast majority of counties in the Authority are extremely rural and deeply conservative,” Strohmaier said. “What this initiative has shown again and again is that we can still agree on a few things in Montana and the United States, and the importance of passenger rail is among them.”
Comments on the FRA study and importance of the North Coast Hiawatha can be submitted by following this link.