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Missoula County unveils railway resolution in push to restore southern passenger route

The rail depot in downtown Missoula once welcomed passengers to the city. Missoula County unveiled a draft resolution on Thursday in efforts to restore passenger service across southern Montana.

Efforts to establish a regional rail authority and restore passenger service across southern Montana took a significant step forward on Thursday when Missoula County unveiled a draft resolution calling for the authority’s creation.

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier will take the draft to a meeting of the Montana Association of Counties in Great Falls next week, looking for other county partners to join the authority.

Along with Missoula County, one other county must join before the regional authority is officially established.

“The intent is to carry this to Great Falls this next week and try to make some formal contacts with other county commissioners in the 18 or 19 counties that would be along the proposed route through southern Montana,” Strohmaier said.

It’s been more than four decades since passenger trains stopped running Montana’s populated southern route, though advocates are looking to bring them back.

Strohmaier has spearheaded the effort and believes he’ll be able to secure the support needed from other counties to establish the regional authority, which comes with no financial implications.

Authorized under state law, the authority could seek federal grants, lobby as an organization, or consider a voter-approved operating levy to support rail operations, among other things. Similar authorities have been established elsewhere in the country and have succeeded in attracting passenger rail service.

“The goal will be to try to get at least one other county,” Strohmaier said. “This is a tangible step.”

The proposed route would run across Montana’s southern tier, where most of the state’s population resides. That includes Miles City, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Paradise, among other communities.

The line would originate in Chicago and travel to Spokane, where passengers could choose between Portland and Seattle. It could serve as an economic boon to the cities and towns along the route.

Strohmaier said Butte Silver-Bow County could join the authority.

“We’ve gotten a good bit of concern from residents of Butte that our initial proposal has this line going through Helena and excluded Butte, only because there’s no functioning line through Butte,” he said. “But where there’s a will and enough money, there’s a way, so we don’t want to exclude Butte from the realm of possibilities.”

A number of counties, businesses and organizations have expressed initial support, Strohmaier said. That includes the CEO of an aerospace company in Bozeman and the economic development group in Dawson County, located in Montana’s eastern reaches.

“Park County has been the most interested,” Strohmaier said. “We’ve got interest from other entities in these counties, such as Dawson County. They’ve got an economic entity over there that has reached out, wondering how they might assist.”

According to the resolution, state law gives a railway authority the powers necessary to provide for the preservation and improvement of abandoned rail service, including passenger service.

If established, the authority is authorized to seek funding, disperse state and federal funds, along with private or public funds, to develop long distance, inter-city rail service across southern Montana.

Deputy County Attorney John Hart and Dori Brownlow, director of the county’s development district, drafted the resolution.

“We mostly took it from the statute,” Brownlow said. “Another county or another county attorney looking at this may have some differing opinions and versions on how this should be drafted.”