Missoula County to draft resolution for regional rail authority in push for passenger route

Citing inaction at the Legislature and growing interest among advocates across the state, Missoula County commissioners this week moved closer to drafting a resolution that would guide the makings of a regional rail authority – part of a push to restore a southern passenger route across Montana.

A group of Missoula officials and legal experts recently verified that statute in Montana Code Annotated allows counties to establish a regional rail authority or a port authority. Missoula County will draft that resolution over the coming weeks and begin shopping it around.

“Coming out of the meeting, the consensus was that indeed, a regional rail authority is the right one to use,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “It’s fairly flexible and provides these authorities broad powers.”

It’s been more than four decades since passenger rail service stopped running Montana’s southern route. But a handful of counties, including Missoula and Park, along with a growing list of advocates, believe it’s time to revisit the issue.

In the wake of climate change, the economic struggles facing rural communities and a general shift in how people commute, proponents see a newfound opportunity to restore the old North Coast Hiawatha Route.

“I’ve never received so much broad scale support for something that we’re proposing as this,” said Strohmaier. “I even received a message from the commissioner of the economic development council in Dawson County, who’s super excited.”

Dawson County, located in eastern Montana, lies 440 miles from Missoula, or nearly as far as the 476 mile road trip from Missoula to Seattle. But the North Coast Hiawatha, if restored, would connect the two communities on its run across the state’s southern reaches.

Air service within Montana offers no such service.

The route would run from Chicago to Fargo and continue west through a number of Montana cities, including Miles City, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Paradise. It would then arrive in Spokane, where passengers could choose between Portland and Seattle.

“I’m excited about being able to get on a train in Missoula and end up in either Portland or Seattle, and having folks from the Pacific Northwest come here, or get to Yellowstone the way they do now via train to Glacier,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “Given our tourist economy, this is just the right way to go.”

But the route remains conceptual and, in the past, it has been dismissed by some due to the costs of restoring the service. But Strohmaier believes those arguments are stale and neglected to consider the economic benefits the route would bring to cities and towns along the line.

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, said at a recent rail summit in Billings that several southern states are close to launching the new Mobile to New Orleans Route. It’s expected to return an estimated $170 million to local economies every year in exchange for an operating investment of around $6 million.

Playing in the favor of local advocates, the Montana Department of Commerce recently resurrected the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund planning grant. It provides up to $25,000 per grant and could be used to explore the economic benefits of restoring the passenger route.

“It could be ideal to look at economic benefits, the economic impact analysis,” Strohmaier said. “In the past, a lot of effort has gone into looking at the costs of reestablishing the service, and not so much at the economic benefits. This could be an opportunity to drill down.”

Missoula County plans to draft a resolution establishing the regional rail authority ahead of a February meeting of the Montana Association of Counties in Grate Falls. It’s there where Strohmaier will begin reaching out to other interested counties along the route.

According to state law, the authority must have five board members. If more sign on, each county could get to appoint a board member. Two counties would be enough to establish the authority, and Park County is highly interested.

“Hypothetically, Missoula County and Park County could create the authority initially and then invite others,” said Strohmaier. “The Board of County Commissioners here in Missoula County could adopt a resolution unilaterally to establish a rail authority in our county. If we wanted to go to a regional rail authority, that would be two or more counties.”

Establishing the authority comes with no financial implications or commitment by participating counties. But it would enable a rail authority to propose to voters an operating levy to support rail operations.

“It could also apply for a federal grant,” Strohmaier said. “Folks need to get over whether this is self-supporting or whether it will make a profit. Just like airlines or our interstate transportation system, these are subsidized with pubic dollars.”

Year of the train? Advocates look to restore passenger rail along Montana’s southern route