With the deadline nearing, the coalition of counties looking to bring passenger rail service back to southern Montana grew over the weekend, with both Gallatin and Broadwater counties signing on.
With two more counties aboard, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority will include at least seven county members in its inaugural resolution, which will likely be adopted later this month.
Only two counties are needed to form the authority under state law.
“I was notified that both Broadwater and Gallatin counties are now going to participate in the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority,” Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said on Tuesday morning. “We’ll know by Thursday what the final tally is, but snagging Gallatin County was a big win.”
Dawson County was the first to join Missoula County in the push to form the new rail authority. Sanders, Park and Prairie counties followed, as have Gallatin and Broadwater.
Gallatin County is the most populous county on the old North Coast Hiawatha route to have joined the effort outside of Missoula County. Yellowstone County has not yet joined.
“It’s fantastic to hear about Gallatin County jumping in,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “I know they were on the fence and they’re a big county.”
Missoula County crafted a draft resolution in early June and sent it out to the nearly two-dozen counties poised along the southern route. Seven have agreed to become members of the authority so far.
In a final push, Strohmaier will meet this week with officials from both Carbon and Butte Silver-Bow counties in hopes they also will join the authority. Even if they decline, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has enough members to become a reality.
Strohmaier said the draft resolution will be finalized and adopted by each participating county after they each hold a public hearing. Missoula County commissioners will hold their hearing later this month.
The authority will serve as the governing body behind the rail authority, capable of applying for grants and lobbying on behalf of the route.
Missoula County has already sent a letter to Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines asking them to back legislative efforts to reauthorize the surface transportation bill. Among other things, the bill would establish five new multi-state rail commissions, not unlike the Southern Rail Commission established by Congress in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Those behind the local effort would like to see the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority receive recognition under the bill as an addition to the new multi-state rail commissions.
“We believe that restoring passenger rail service to the southern tier of the state would be a transformative project for Montana,” the county’s letter states. “And with reauthorization of the surface transportation bill under consideration, Congress is poised to play a leadership role in economic recovery and innovation, including here in Montana.”