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Montana rail authority leads push for new passenger service

High gas prices and the desire for slow travel in "post-pandemic" America is leading to a new golden age of passenger rail.

MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) — More than 40 years have passed since travelers last rode the rails through southern Montana. In the meantime, Montana's roads have gotten busier while it's become increasingly clear that vehicle emissions must be drastically reduced to have any chance of averting the worst effects of climate change. Arguing that the time has come for cleaner, easier transportation, Montanans are trying to drum up enough money and clout to revive the passenger line.

In mid-July, that effort got a big boost when the Montana Department of Transportation signed on as a member of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. The department joins Amtrak, the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway, three Montana Indian reservations and 18 of 26 counties along the proposed line, in backing the almost two-year effort to bring passenger trains back to some of the more populated towns of the Treasure State.

“Neither BNSF nor Amtrak would be at the table if this were perceived as a flash in the pan or not a serious effort," said Dave Strohmaier, Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority chair. "The Montana DOT is an important player because we are talking about transportation. I think it’s an important signal to the credibility of the rail authority.’”

The North Coast Hiawatha route used to carry passengers between Chicago and Seattle, passing though hundreds of miles of uninterrupted prairie in sparsely populated North Dakota and Montana. Amtrak took over in 1971, and a few years later, an interstate highway was completed paralleling the same route, supposedly creating less need for a train. The Hiawatha already had some of the lowest ridership and revenue recovery of Amtrak’s lines. Still, towns along Montana’s southern line were disappointed to learn in 1978 that they’d probably lose passenger service.

A year later, Congress pulled the North Coast Hiawatha from Amtrak’s system in favor of the Empire Builder, which provides similar passenger service across the remote and even less populated northern portion of the western U.S. But it’s not convenient for people in Billings, Bozeman or Missoula to drive three to five hours north to catch that train. So, as those towns have grown, along with concerns about climate change, people have increasingly called for restoration of the southern line.

Paulette Keifer recently moved from Oregon to Glendive at far eastern end of Montana's section of the Hiawatha route. With the closest large airport being a 3-hour drive away in Billings, it's hard for her to see family.

"Wish there was a train for people to come to Glendive. I have family who would come from Oregon to visit just to ride the train," Keifer said.

“Montanans typically have one mode of interstate travel, the automobile,” said Paul Pacini of Helena. “A significant number of Montanans do not have access to a car because of a disability, age, legal restrictions, or income. They find themselves literally stranded in their homes. We desperately need other transportation options.”

Strohmaier has watched since the early 2000s as attempts to promote passenger rail surged and then died. As a Missoula City Council member and now a Missoula County commissioner, he’s racked his brain to find a solution.

“I came to the conclusion when I started as a county commissioner that we’re just not getting anywhere. Trying the same thing and expecting different results is not getting the job done. Isolated communities passing resolutions to affirm their support of passenger rail in this kind of siloed fashion also is not getting the job done,” Strohmaier said in February 2021. “But it occurred to me that the one thing that is contiguous across the entire state are counties. Is there a mechanism in state law that would allow counties to come together and create some sort of a special district that would further our goals?”

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It turned out there was. In the 1990s, the Montana Legislature voted to allow counties to create their own rail authorities. It was intended to allow counties to maintain small railroad spurs to serve farming communities needing to ship commodities. But the law was never used.

Until now.

Upon discovering the law, Missoula County commissioners began recruiting other counties in 2020. By the end of the year, a dozen had agreed to join in, and the Big Sky Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority was born.

Other counties were leery about joining, worried they’d be stuck paying part of the cost for the passenger service. The holdouts include Lewis and Clark County, home of Helena, the state capital, and Yellowstone County, which has the state's largest city, Billings.

"I'm trying to get to 'yes,'" said Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Jim McCormick in April. "My concern is getting Lewis and Clark County taxpayers hooked into this thing, and that (the rail authority) is forthright, saying 'there are no expenses. There's nothing there.' But the resolution doesn't read that way."

But the Big Sky Rail Authority won't be bank-rolling the whole thing. Montana doesn’t have a large enough population to run its own rail system, therefore it has to be part of the Amtrak system. So the Rail Authority serves as an arm of the state that can advocate and raise funds for restoring the passenger rail and act as a liaison between state and federal agencies, corporations, and local governments.

“In the past, we never had a rail authority, so we were always approaching the Legislature, sort of hat-in-hand, asking for letters or resolutions of support of passenger rail. Well, we’re over that,” Strohmaier said.

The Montana Legislature has never backed restoration of the Hiawatha, because some legislators fear passenger trains would interfere with the freight trains.

“There’s this sense that passenger rail is somehow antithetical to freight rail. By virtue of having BNSF — freight rail — at the table, I think we’re in the process of doing some myth-busting. What some folks thought was impossible is both possible and offers the ability to see mutual benefit and synergy between freight and passenger rail operations,” Strohmaier said.

Naysayers still question the cost of restoring the Hiawatha. They often trot out a 2009 Amtrak feasibility study that estimated restoration from Chicago to Seattle would cost about a billion dollars.

The Rail Authority partners knew they had to update those numbers. For one thing, BNSF has made a number of upgrades to the rails since 2009. The region has also seen a surge in the number of potential riders whose ticket purchases could defray costs.

A study published in September 2021 concluded that operating the Hiawatha would cost Amtrak $68 million a year while ticket sales and other revenue from as many as 426,000 passengers would amount to $41 million. Amtrak would have to budget for purchasing rights-of-way and track and signaling improvements that would cost $795 million over five years, according to the study.

While that might not sound like a good deal for Amtrak, the study found it was a great deal for the states. The passenger line would provide an annual economic benefit of $271 million — including reduced road construction and maintenance — for the states and counties it served.

But that doesn't impress Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund, who doesn't like the idea of taxpayer dollars making up the difference between operating costs and revenue.

“You're talking about spending, in current dollars today, $3 or $4 billion to put in a rail service that would handle a few hundred thousand people and then be highly subsidized,” Ostlund said, citing the 2009 Amtrak estimate.

Still, with President Joe Biden pushing Congress to allocate more money to passenger rail, the Big Sky Rail Authority couldn’t have come together at a better time.

In April 2021, Biden marked Amtrak’s 50th anniversary by calling on Congress to invest $80 billion in rail upgrades, including reducing Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, improving rail corridors and providing grants for better rail efficiency.

Aware of the fledgling Big Sky Rail Authority, Montana’s Senator Jon Tester, along with Senator John Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, inserted language into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directing the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the restoration of transcontinental passenger routes and appropriated $15 million for the work.

After Biden signed the bill in November 2021, Strohmaier lobbied Montana’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., to ensure that the North Coast Hiawatha was one of long-distance lines to be included in the study.

The Federal Railroad Administration is poised to begin that study in late August. Notably, FRA Administrator Amit Bose has chosen to roll out the study on Aug. 22 during the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Summit in Billings. Then, over the following 18 months, consultants will evaluate the pros and cons of restoring daily service on 10 discontinued long-distance routes, including the Hiawatha.

“This summit won’t be your run-of-the-mill conference. We are very focused on how it can be an integral piece of the public engagement for the study,” Strohmaier said. “I don’t know when the last time was that we had as high a level delegation of federal officials who will be joining us for something related to passenger rail.”

In the meantime, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority will be working with the Montana Department of Transportation to rewrite Montana’s rail plan. The Federal Railroad Administration study will take state rail plans into consideration, so the more the Montana plan highlights the Hiawatha route, the better for route restoration supporters. Wyoming just updated its rail plan and South Dakota is in the drafting process. Both mention the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority and its goals, Strohmaier said.

“If the Legislature can play a role, it’s in helping to emphasize to DOT that this needs to be a priority,” Strohmaier said. “My hope would be, as meteoric as our rise has been as the rail authority, that we’ll be able to make the case that this is the time to strike.”

Even though its creation was timed well, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority doesn’t have a moment to lose. By the time the Federal Railroad Authority study is done, even if the North Coast Hiawatha is given top priority, only two to three years of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill funding will remain. There’s also the uncertainty posed by the 2024 presidential election.

“Once the recommendations are out, even within the five-year time horizon, I think we have a great shot of getting the restoration project up and moving,” Strohmaier said. “We basically have a two-year window to get on a glide path toward project implementation, because all bets are off with a different administration in the White House. We have a shot at this now, which we’ve never had in the past.”

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