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Expanding rail service will create greater connectivity in Montana

by Dave Strohmaier, Jason Stuart, Jerry McDonald
| March 30, 2022 12:00 AM

For over a century, passenger rail has been part of Montana’s heritage, culture, and economy. It’s currently a lifeline for Hi-Line communities. And, without a doubt, it is part of Montana’s future.

In the fall of 2020, 12 Montana counties, stretching from Sanders to Wibaux, came together to establish the first regional passenger rail authority in the history of Montana—the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. Over the course of the past year, we’ve added five additional counties to the Authority, ex officio representation from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai, Crow, and Northern Cheyenne tribes, and Amtrak. And BNSF Railway is a partner in charting a path forward to expand and enhance passenger rail service in Montana and beyond.

Seventeen counties strong, we’re now the largest transportation district in the state of Montana and a subdivision of state government. In our short existence, we’ve become a national leader in efforts to expand the national long-distance passenger rail network. And, besides our primary focus of reestablishing the east-west North Coast Hiawatha route through southern Montana that was discontinued in 1979, we’re fully supportive of a strong and vital Empire Builder. In fact, in spring 2021, the Authority sent an official letter to members of Congress supporting the restoration of the Empire Builder to daily service.

The Hi-Line knows full well the importance of the Empire Builder — connecting rural communities, providing a means of accessing health care via an all-weather mode of travel for those might have few other transportation options, linking Montana to the larger region and nation, and conversely allowing folks across America to access Glacier National Park and all that northern Montana has to offer.

We admire the hard work of passenger rail advocates along the Hi-Line and believe those efforts are worth emulating. Indeed, far from detracting from the Empire Builder, expanding our national rail network and restoring the North Coast Hiawatha will create greater connectivity in our state and throughout the Greater Northwest region. It will provide rail access to Montana’s second iconic national park, Yellowstone, bring folks to gems like Makoshika State Park and myriad other recreational destinations, and also connect southern Montana cities, towns, and rural areas to the nation. It will even allow us to knit together northern and southern tiers of Montana by creating linkages to the Empire Builder in Sandpoint, ID, and Fargo, ND—strengthening the ridership and benefits of both lines.

For too long, we’ve lived with a skeletal network of passenger rail in this country—limping by, oftentimes set up for failure, and locked in a defensive posture that offers little room for creative thinking. What’s different now? Not only do we have a passenger rail authority, but we understand that, just like our interstate highway system or airline industry, more connections and routes make the overall system stronger.

Most importantly, when it comes to passenger rail, the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides a path forward that we’ve not seen in a generation or more. Besides the dollars this law directs toward Amtrak to upgrade and enhance the existing national long-distance network, including the Empire Builder, there are significant funds allocated to the Federal Railroad Administration for enhancing intercity passenger rail to the tune of $12 billion, of which a minimum of $2.4 billion must go toward expanding the long-distance national network. That means places like Montana. If we turn our back on this, make no mistake about it, those dollars are going somewhere else.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is all about walking and chewing gum at the same time. We can enhance the Empire Builder and at the same time better serve rural Montanans by restoring the 16th long-distance route in the country: the North Coast Hiawatha. As Montanans, and as the rail authority, we’re demonstrating as we speak—and the nation is watching—how we can work together across political, ideological, and urban-rural divides to create a positive transportation future that serves all Montanans and Americans.

To learn more about the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, check out our website at bigskyrail.org, find us on YouTube or Facebook, or drop in at our virtual public meetings. All aboard!

Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority Executive Committee Dave Strohmaier, chair (Missoula County); Jason Stuart, vice chair (Dawson County); Jerry McDonald, treasurer (Sanders County)

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