The startup Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority joined elite company this week with it’s official formation and, in doing so, received recognition from one of the nation’s most successful rail authorities.
The Montana rail authority, the first of its kind in the state, officially adopted its resolution earlier this week after receiving the signatures of all 12 participating counties.
The following day, the Southern Rail Commission recognized the authority’s formation and the potential role it could play in helping passenger rail lobby for congressional support.
“We commend Montana for taking this initial step in forming the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and we hope other states take notice and jump on board,” said Wiley Blankenship, chair of the Southern Rail Commission.
During the Big Sky Passenger Rail Summit held virtually in Missoula in September, members of the Southern Rail Commission offered advice and encouragement to the Montana authority as it looked to form.
The Southern Rail Commission successfully established passenger service between Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and could eventual push through to Florida.
Advice from the SRC encouraged Montana to join surrounding states including Oregon and Idaho to restore passenger service across the Pacific Northwest. The chair of the Boise City Council has also lent support and suggested Idaho and Montana could work together to advance passenger rail.
During the Missoula summit, members of the Southern Rail Commission said the Big Sky authority, combined with a possible regional rail commission spanning the Pacific Northwest or Northern Rockies, could help grow the passenger rail lobby in Washington, D.C., and net more funding for passenger service.
“The successes of the Southern Rail Commission are not only due to the combined bipartisan support from our governors, congressional leaders and other local officials and governmental agencies across our three states, but they also stem from our unique authority enacted by Congress, unlocking access to federal funding for passenger rail projects,” Blankeship said.
The Big Sky authority seeks to preserve and improve abandoned rail service for “agriculture, industry, or passenger traffic,” and to preserve railroad right of way for future transportation uses.
Under the resolution, the rail authority will work to further the health, safety and economic prosperity of the region by advocating for rail as a public transportation option. It will also provide the governance to seek the funding needed to develop long-distance, inter-city rail service across southern Montana.
“Counties in Montana have done what has never been done before – establish the first regional passenger rail authority in the state,” Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “This will set the stage for re-establishing regular passenger rail service through the southern tier of the state — a transformational project for Montana that will add to and complement the Empire Builder along the Hi-Line.”
According to Blankenship, momentum is also building as other regions across the country, including Denver to Albuquerque, West Virginia to Ohio, and areas across upper New York State, which all are exploring the creation of a multi-state rail authority.
“Forming these new independent authorities could create a strong passenger rail caucus in Washington with numerous states united on passenger rail priorities, and with the ability to secure federal funds and create impactful legislation,” Blankeship said.