Missoula County officially joins upstart Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority

Missoula County Commissioners Dave Strohmaier, top left, Juanita Vero, bottom left, and Josh Slotnick, bottom right, officially adopt the joint resolution creating the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority on Thursday, July 30, 2020.

Missoula County on Thursday became the second in Montana to adopt a joint resolution forming the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority in a push to bring inter-city service back to the state’s southern tier.

Gallatin County adopted the resolution earlier this week and with two counties now on board, the authority has what it needs to become official under state law.

But advocates are hoping the 10 other Montana counties that have expressed interest in joining the rail authority will also adopt the resolution in the coming weeks. Other latecomers are still welcome to join, but the “train is leaving the station.”

“Once all the counties have adopted and signed on, each county will appoint a member to the board,” said Dori Brownlow, director of Missoula County’s development districts. “The board will adopt officers and begin the process of bylaws and procedures and looking at their goals and strategy moving forward.”

Missoula County commissioners have long described the restoration of passenger rail across southern Montana as a transformational project, one that could provide an economic jolt and help the state on its path toward recovery.

Advocates also believe it could be an economic game changer for stops across rural Montana.

“We’re in such a connected world that people could begin to live in these (rural) places that are super beautiful and do their work remotely,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “But people still need to have more physical connections, so if they’re living in Prairie County, they can get somewhere else fairly rapidly. This kind of connectivity could begin to shift that demographic trend and really change things economically.”

Among other things, passenger service could stimulate the travel and tourism economy in Montana by providing public transportation across the state’s most populated corridor. Advocates also see it as a future necessity and a vital piece of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, no different than broadband or the interstate system.

Once established, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority will create the governance to investigate, seek and accept funding for passenger service. It also would work in concert with the state’s congressional delegation, as well as state and federal transportation officials to implement inter-city rail service across the region.

The Missoula City Council has also backed the resolution.

“It would facilitate and collaborate with other government entities or agencies to do the analysis necessary to investigate the feasibility of what this would take,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “It would look at the additional economic impact analysis, which has been sorely lacking in the past.”

Strohmaier, who began pushing for passenger service last year, said no government entity in Montana oversees the expansion of passenger rail in the state’s southern reaches. The newly created authority will assume that role and it could include 12 counties if each of them adopts the resolution.

Dawson County was the first to express interest, followed by Sanders and Park counties. Broadwater County soon followed, as did Carbon, Big Horn, Prairie and Wibaux counties. Gallatin County jumped on board in early July, as did Butte-Silver Bow.

“We’re also thinking that in 2020, with the changes in demographics, changes in the economy, it might make a whole lot of sense to take a hard look at what it would take to restore passenger rail from Salt Lake City up to Butte, or from Denver north to Billings and points beyond, all of which existed at some point in time.”

Amtrak ran the North Coast Hiawatha across Montana’s southern tier from 1971 to 1979. The route included Miles City, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Missoula and Paradise, among other communities.

“There certainly will need to be other studies and analysis conducted, but currently the route east of Butte over Homestake Pass has been closed for decades,” Strohmaier said. “It’s not the most likely route that would be opened initially.

“But it’s in the realm of possibility. Most likely the route for passenger service would follow the current freight rail trunk line through Helena, Missoula, up through Sanders County and exit the state into Idaho and Spokane.”