MISSOULA - Nearly two years after setting out to restore passenger rail service across southern Montana, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority likes its momentum and believes it has done the legwork to position itself for inclusion in a pending study, and potential funding down the road.
Board president and Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier spent last week in Washington, D.C., where he met with both Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, along with the Federal Railroad Administration and other transportation officials.
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Strohmaier said the routes of both the North Coast Hiawatha and Pioneer will likely be included in the Amtrak Daily Long-Distance Service Study that’s set to go out for bid in the coming weeks.
The Pioneer route once connected Salt Lake City to Seattle, with stops in Pocatello, Boise and Portland.
“I’ve been in discussions with Federal Railroad Administration staff concerning the … study called for in Section 22214 of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and they said that it’s clear, based on their reading of the statute, that the North Coast Hiawatha is among the routes Congress is directing FRA to study for restoration, as is the Pioneer route,” Strohmaier said.
Inclusion in the study would mark a significant step forward in the region’s push to restore passenger service across Montana’s most populated tier, along with surrounding regions with connections to both the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
The study will provide a foundational look at what will be needed to restore specific passenger routes that have been discontinued. The North Coast Hiawatha ended service in the 1970s, though much has changed in Montana since then, including a growing population base and several thriving cities along the old southern route.
Sens. Tester and John Wicker, R-Mississippi, sponsored the language directing the U.S. Department of Transportation to complete the nationwide study of discontinued, long-distance routes, such as the North Coast Hiawatha. They also worked to include $15 million in the infrastructure bill to do so.
“We’re talking about taking a hard look and deep dive at what it will take to bring back specific routes, and which routes are most likely to succeed,” Strohmaier said. “All the work we’ve done at the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority to catalyze this effort over the past year-and-a-half is being recognized by the highest levels of the Department of Transportation. We’re well poised in coming out of the study.”
The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority in October unveiled a preliminary report, which found that restoring the southern Amtrak route across Montana and six other states would generate more than $270 million in economic benefits.
At the same time, bringing back the North Coast Hiawatha would cost Amtrak around $68 million a year to operate. The route could expect more than 420,000 annual passengers.
According to the report’s findings, restoring the route also would bring service to roughly 47 stops across seven states ranging from Washington to Illinois. The benefits to the counties served by those stops would aggregate to around $70 million annually and generate nearly $5 million in visitor spending.
The next step, Strohmaier said, is to move on the findings of the pending transportation study.
“It’s not yet another study that will collect dust on a shelf,” he said. “There are real dollars in the bipartisan infrastructure law to actually make the improvements on the ground to facilitate the return of passenger rail in our region.”