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As discussion on passenger rail service chugs along, Montana's largest county won't buy a ticket to ride

MRL Montana Rail Link Train
Posted at 5:46 PM, Jan 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-21 19:46:17-05

BILLINGS- Seventeen counties are now on board with the nostalgic idea of bringing passenger rail service back to Montana’s southern route.

However, sandwiched between Custer and Carbon counties (two counties that are all aboard) is Montana’s largest county: Yellowstone, which is not opting in.

For leaders in Yellowstone County, the decision comes down to the high upfront capital needed to make the dream of passenger rail a reality.

“For me, it's just an economic issue,” said Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund.

Ostlund talks about the idea of passenger rail in a very fundamental way.

“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,” he said.

A recent Amtrak study found that total projected capital and implementation costs to restore the North Coast Hiawatha line could total $1.043 billion.

Ostlund says that although talk of federal infrastructure dollars has been thrown out there, to help pay for the endeavor it would ultimately come down to taxpayers footing that bill.

“We don't have $3 billion,” he said. “Our total county budget is $1.3 million. We all know where that will go."

Amtrak previously stated in its study that it recommends federal and state policymakers determine if intercity passenger rail service in Montana should be reintroduced and, if so, that they provide the required levels of capital and operating funding to Amtrak.

Amtrak anticipates the cost to restore or replace the stations alone is $17.6 million.

However, there’s been some new conversation surrounding the idea of passenger rail as Montana Rail Link prepares to leave Montana’s tracks. The Missoula-based railroad is ending its lease of BNSF tracks, effectively turning over its operations to the larger rail company.

BNSF already is used to running freight and passenger trains on its lines in other parts of the country. It’s something Dave Strohmaier, who is pioneering the passenger rail idea, hopes could mean new opportunities.

“What are the needs to accommodate additional passenger rail service, and how can that additional infrastructure investment also be leveraged to help the bottom line of the freight operators also?” said Strohmaier.

But more than that, he says it’s been Montana’s smaller counties who have ambitiously signed on to be a part of the rail authority first.

“The more rural, sparsely populated counties are most enthusiastic about this because it provides them an opportunity to do commerce, to engage with the broader region that they just they just simply do not have now,” he said.

And when it comes to a bottom dollar, Strohmaier sees it a bit differently than Ostlund.

“One hundred million dollars is estimated to accrue in economic benefits along this route per year during the startup phase,” said Stohmaier.

The Amtrak study also backs that up, suggesting there is an economic net to be had for passenger rail, generating a safe and environmentally friendly travel option for the ever-growing number of visitors heading to Yellowstone National Park.

In addition, Amtrak anticipates that restoring passenger service on the North Coast Hiawatha route would produce jobs created, primarily in construction, manufacturing, and material supply, and 269 permanent Amtrak jobs.

As far as the changes with Montana Rail Link, federal law requires freight carriers to collaborate with Amtrak to provide passenger rail service. The Rail Authority is expecting to hear from both MRL and BNSF representatives during its February meeting.