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Plan to restore passenger rail service from Washington to Montana in full swing | Local

According to a report this week from the Big Sky Rail Authority, more passenger rail service is not just a hope and a dream, but a plan that is slowly becoming a reality.

And Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is on board.

Big Sky Rail Authority officials updated the Montana Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee this week, shortly after Secretary Buttigieg visited the Treasure State and touted federal investment in infrastructure.

Dave Strohmaier, chairman of the Big Sky Rail Authority, said a federal railroad study identified two trunk routes through Montana as preferred routes: an east-west line connecting Seattle to Chicago and a north-south line to Billings.

“Montana is really the epicenter and beneficiary of two preferred long-distance routes in this study,” Strohmaier said.

He said the selection of the Montana routes as preferred routes in the Federal Railroad Administration study is one of the two main goals the Big Sky Rail Authority has accomplished since its inception about three years ago. He said the routes would connect urban and rural communities in the American West.

At a separate event this week at the Missoula Montana Airport, Buttigieg spoke about the impact federal infrastructure money has on customers, workers and economic development.

He said the West is known to have some of America's greatest railroads, but the trains are no longer in service and that is one reason the federal Transportation Department has poured planning money into rail.

In December 2023, the Biden administration announced $8.2 billion in new rail grants for construction-ready and in-progress projects, including planning funds for improved service in Montana.

A few weeks ago, Buttigieg said he attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a high-speed rail line between Nevada and Southern California. He said rail is part of the transport system and a program to identify corridors will lead to a plan to introduce more rail.

“The bottom line is that we believe in passenger rail … we've done it before in this country, and we've done it well, and there's no reason we can't do it again,” Buttigieg said.

Strohmaier said there are some big federal initiatives underway related to rail, and Montana is on board in both areas. He answered questions by phone and also presented a report to lawmakers Wednesday in which he shared a map showing the lack of services in Montana.

“If people are wondering about the feasibility or not, this train has left the station,” Strohmaier said. “We are no longer discussing feasibility. We are currently in the planning stages to make this happen.”

Planning is underway with a $500,000 grant from the federal Department of Transportation, he said. But Rob Stapley of the Montana Department of Transportation said no federal funding is currently available to operate restored or new long-haul passenger routes.

According to a 2021 report from the Rail Passengers Association, restoring the Hiawatha North Shore will provide an estimated $271 million in economic benefits to seven states and cost Amtrak $68 million to operate. According to the report, the costs will be offset by the collection of $41 million in fares and other customer revenue.

Samantha Beyl of Rosebud County told the committee that southeast Montana is home to 20 percent of the state's population and 26 percent of its land area and is a place of great cultural and recreational significance.

But Beyl said many communities face challenges accessing services like health care and passenger rail could help get people to cities where health care is available, such as Billings.

In 2023, tourists spent $5.45 billion in Montana, including $1.6 billion on transit, she said, citing the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana. In southeastern Montana alone, she said, nonresidents spent $868 million in 2022.

“This underscores the importance of improving transportation infrastructure such as the passenger rail system to meet growing tourist demand,” said Beyl, a Forsyth city councilman and member of the Big Sky Rail Authority.

The Big Sky Rail Authority is the largest transit district in the state of Montana and a subdivision of state government, Strohmaier said. The executives include representatives from 20 member groups; three tribal nations, the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; and Amtrak, the Montana Department of Transportation and BNSF.

First, Strohmaier said, the Federal Railroad Administration's long-distance transportation study examines the potential to reopen closed or new lines that are 750 miles or more long. That study will be completed soon and identifies both the North Shore Hiawatha, connecting Chicago to Seattle via southern Montana, and a north-south line to Billings, depending on El Paso or Denver's wishes, he said.

“This is a big deal for the state of Montana and something that has been four decades in the making,” Strohmaier said.

Additionally, Strohmaier said the North Coast Hiawatha is the only new trunk route recommended to Congress under another Federal Railroad Administration program, the Corridor Identification Program, to set railroad priorities.

“This is also a big victory for Montana,” he said.

He said a tender would be issued within days to hire a firm to help move the project into the development pipeline. The federal rail programs are part of the bipartisan infrastructure law.

According to the Big Sky Rail Authority, the North Coast Hiawatha was discontinued in 1979, leaving “much of the Greater Northwest Region” and some of Montana's largest cities without passenger rail service.

The plan's next steps include answering the “burning questions that people have been asking for so long,” Strohmaier said. Where will the stations be? What will the schedules be? What infrastructure investments are necessary?

“What will the trains themselves be like?” said Strohmaier, also chairman of the Board of Missoula County Commissioners.

He said a $500,000 federal grant is supporting the planning process and a “shovel-ready project” should be ready for implementation in 2.5 to three years.

The collaboration includes the Federal Railroad Administration and eight states, including Montana. Strohmaier said he met briefly with Buttigieg this week and that the secretary was aware of and enthusiastic about the efforts in Montana.

One question people have asked is whether a train could run through Butte in the future, but that is a heavier train than Helena because there is no active rail line east of Butte, Strohmaier said. However, he said Butte will remain in the game for the long haul.

“In the short term, we should just let the damn train run through southern Montana (and) find transit through communities that may not initially have a train stop,” Strohmaier said. “But in any case, Butte is still there at some point when it comes to rail connections.”

He also said infrastructure work was underway near Malta with a $15 million federal DOT grant. He said upgrades near Malta were important as it was a bottleneck for passengers and cargo.

This week, Strohmaier and an Amtrak official traveled to Havre for a meeting discussing the Empire Builder. He said the concern along the Hi-Line is that if Montana adds passenger service elsewhere, it would mean a loss of rail along the Hi-Line.

“Only with a strong Empire Builder can we have a strong, vital and sustainable North Coast Hiawatha,” Strohmaier said.

This story first appeared on Daily Montanan.

Anna Harden

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