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Support For Southern Passenger Rail Line In Montana Gains Steam

A map shows which counties have signed on to participate in the Big Sky Rail Authority, September 1, 2020.
Big Sky Rail Authority
A map shows which counties have signed on to participate in the Big Sky Rail Authority, September 1, 2020.

Efforts to restore a southern passenger rail line in Montana are gaining speed. Advocates say it would draw in visitors, provide more transportation options and create jobs.

Jason Stuart, the executive director of the Dawson County Economic Development Council, said a passenger train connecting Glendive to places like Chicago and Seattle would be an economic boon for eastern Montana.

“We see a lot of economic opportunity for drawing more visitors through Glendive and through the whole of eastern Montana, whether they’re into badlands and dinosaurs or they’re Lewis and Clark fans. They want to follow the Lewis and Clark Trail but want to do it on the train,” Stuart said.

Stuart was one of several panelists to champion the proposed southern rail line at a virtual summit last week attended by about 300 people.

He said passenger rail could also save some railroad jobs in Glendive. Eighty-five people were laid off earlier this year when the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway closed its diesel repair shop.

Stuart said eastern Montana needs more transportation options for students going to college, older folks who can’t drive and people who need to get to legislative sessions in winter.

He said he cancelled a trip to Helena last year to lobby for infrastructure improvements when a blizzard blew in.

“It sure would have been nice to have the ability to say, ‘Ok, I can’t drive, but you know what I can do? I can jump on this train and be in Helena in a few hours and I can still do what I need to do,'” Stuart said.

Proponents of adding a passenger rail line say it’s too early to estimate a cost since the exact route hasn’t been decided, but they emphasized better transportation can have long-term benefits.

Roger Millar, Secretary of Transportation for the state of Washington, said high speed rail can increase access to jobs and affordable housing and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

He shared plans for a $50 billion project connecting Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.

“We’ll be spending that kind of money on transportation in the next couple of decades. The question is: where do you get the return on investment,” Millar said.

Millar said adding a lane on the interstate from Oregon to the Canadian border would cost around $100 billion, twice the amount as high speed rail, and people would still have a full day of driving instead of a two hour train ride.

In Montana, Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago along Montana’s Hi-Line to Seattle and Portland, is the only passenger rail service.

Paul Tuss, the executive director of Bear Paw Development Corporation in Havre, said the federal government spends nearly $58 million a year to run Amtrak’s Empire Builder, currently the only passenger rail service to pass through Montana on its run from Chicago to Seattle and Portland. Tuss added the Empire Builder’s economic impact to the states it serves is almost six fold.

While Tuss said he supports the proposed southern passenger rail, he asked people at the summit to also help protect existing service on the Hi-Line.

“My basic message today is: Let’s do this, but let’s do it properly and make sure that the rail authority that we’re talking about includes people from northern Montana and that we’re all supportive of making sure that we support the Empire Builder as well as the southern line,” Tuss said.

Tuss said baggage handlers and station attendants in Shelby and Havre have already lost their jobs ahead of Amtrak’s plans to cut daily service along the Hi-Line to three days a week in mid October.

Missoula County Commissioner David Strohmaier said the next step to make the southern rail line a reality is to form a Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. It would serve as a governing body, similar to a fire or school district, that would come up with a strategic plan, pull in funding and be the primary point of contact for Amtrak, state and federal government.

“Let’s try to make a transportation future and system that is resilient, that’s robust, that is truly forward looking, and I think we can do that. If this pandemic has demonstrated anything to us, ladies and gentlemen, we can accomplish big goals; we can be bold, and we can accomplish this together,” Strohmaier said.

So far, nine counties have joined the rail authority: Sanders, Missoula, Silver Bow, Jefferson, Broadwater, Gallatin, Park, Dawson and Wibaux. Strohmaier said they’re waiting for one more county to sign on before forming an official rail authority, which will be decided in several weeks.

Copyright 2020 Yellowstone Public Radio

Rachel is a UM grad working in the MTPR news department.
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