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Billings among latest communities to support proposed Southern Montana passenger rail plan

Posted at 11:44 AM, Dec 20, 2023

BILLINGS — By planes, trains, and automobiles, Montanans are no strangers to long travel times and distances. Gathering speed is a new push to expand the way travelers can connect across the state and to major U.S. cities, all through passenger rail.

There are 2,222 miles of track connecting Chicago to Seattle that used to move travelers along a passage called the North Coast Hiawatha.

That train has been off the tracks for nearly 50 years, ending service in 1979, but a years-long push from the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is trying to usher in a new era of train travel.

"The amount of workforce we could move along here, the connectivity it brings, that's revitalizing all these areas and is so important," said Jess Peterson, executive director of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.

Right now the only passenger train service in Montana is the Empire Builder route operated by Amtrak, which has 12 stops between Wolf Point and Libby.

The proposed revival of the North Hiawatha would take the route south, coming in from North Dakota through Glendive with stops in Miles City, Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, and more.

"We have 20-plus member counties, our most recent being Treasure County in Eastern Montana," Peterson said. "And you have these small towns along the way that say, 'We want to be a part of it,' even when their counties aren't a part of it."

Peterson said BSPRA is also receiving interest from communities that are off the main line of the route, but hope spur lines could connect them to the main rail.

"We've had money come in from Bridger, from Bear Creek, of course Carbon County has been a great member, a great supporter," Peterson said. "You go down into Beaverhead County, we're going to be meeting with them here in February talking about why they need to get involved. The City of Lima sent money in their county."

BSPRA is a transportation authority enabling passenger rail travel in the state of Montana that has been in existence since 2020. Phase one of their initiative to bring passenger rail service back to the southern tracks is conducting a large-scale study of existing track, community interest, and other elements of the project.

Helping fund the study is a boost of money, $500,000 to be exact, secured by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

BSPRA "will take a look at this from a lot of different angles to find out if this route makes sense for Montana, makes sense for the country," Tester said recently.

Tester said he sees the potential of the southern route, but Montanans can't put the cart before the horse.

"The opportunities for business to be connected up with bigger cities like Chicago, Seattle, Spokane, be able to move people and product. I think that that's very, very positive," Tester said. "How much it would be used? That's what this study will find out. I think from a recreation standpoint, it speaks for itself."

But not every county is on board and there are still major holdouts, including Yellowstone County.

"My thoughts on the passenger rail service probably hasn't changed," said Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund. "To spend a billion dollars to make a few million seems like a crazy idea to me."

Serving as one of three county commissioners, Ostlund has stood firmly against the project for years, citing concerns about costs, travel time, interruption of freight, and return on investment.

"I don't think it's the most effective use of our money," Ostlund said. "If we're going to put billions of dollars into Montana, the highway system could use billions of dollars of influx. That really moves traffic, freight, trucks, cars and people."

While Ostlund doesn't expect his position to change, Billings city leaders pledged the city as a partner in the project early this month.

“Billings was founded as a rail hub and played a leadership role in rail in Montana,” said Billings Mayor Bill Cole on Dec. 14. “Our community and people want to be part of this process of restoring and bringing connectivity via passenger rail to Billings, Yellowstone County and the region.”

Getting Billings on board shows there are wheels in motion for the future of the passenger train.

"Montana is a rail state, this is who we are and the future of rail is bright," Peterson said.