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Missoula County now looking for partners to join Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority

A draft resolution proposing to establish the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority won the preliminary backing of Missoula County commissioners on Thursday, moving it one step closer to adoption.

With Missoula County signaling its intent to adopt the resolution, the document will be distributed to the nearly two-dozen other counties poised along the old Amtrak route across southern Montana in hopes one or more of them will climb aboard.

“My plan would be to send out our cover letter and draft resolution to all of the potentially participating counties across the southern tier of Montana, and give those counties until the end of June to weigh in on whether they’re interested in participating or not,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority would aim to further the economic prosperity of the region by advocating for rail as a means of public transportation. Similar rail authorities have shown success on that front, including the Southern Rail Commissioner across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

It would also establish a governance that could seek funding for the development of intercity rail service across southern Montana. Amtrak abandoned the route in the 1970s, though much has changed since then, and proponents see the route’s return as both an economic driver and a means of efficient, long-distance transportation.

“I think we’re ready to roll into the next phase of this,” Strohmaier said.

Under state statute, at least one other county must express interest in adopting the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. If a county other that Missoula does so, the name of the participating counties would effectively complete the resolution.

That would put the creation of the rail authority to a vote by each of the participating counties.

“Once we have the final language in the resolution, including the names of the counties that want to participate, each of those counties go through the public hearing process, whatever that might be, to adopt it,” Strohmaier said.

“Missoula County, per its typical process, would hold a public hearing adopting this resolution,” he added. “If another county did the same, the authority would be established.”

Amtrak ran the North Coast Hiawatha across Montana’s more populated southern tier from 1971 to 1979. The route included Miles City, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Paradise, among other communities. It originates in Chicago and ends in Sand Point, where passengers choose continue on to either Portland or Seattle.

Advocates of passenger rail service are pushing to restore the service, and several Montana counties other than Missoula have expressed interest.

“Probably those are the most likely counties,” said Strohmaier. “There are a bunch of these counties I’ve not heard from. They might weight in also, possibly.”