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It’s official: Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority forms, eyes southern route

A dozen participating counties spanning Montana from east to west officially formed the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority on Tuesday and plan to hold their first meeting in the coming weeks.

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said 12 counties will serve as founding members of the startup authority, which looks to restore passenger rail service to the state’s southern tier.

It’s the first such rail authority ever established in Montana.

“It’s a done deal,” Strohmaier said on Wednesday morning. “We have the first passenger rail authority in the state of Montana formed.”

The authority’s official formation culminates an effort that began last October when Strohmaier went to work on the concept. Missoula County adopted a draft resolution in the spring and shopped it around to the 24 counties poised along the southern route.

Gallatin County was the first to join and Powell County was the last. The authority now has counties representing urban centers and rural communities stretching from the Idaho border to North Dakota.

“We’re waiting for just a handful of counties to provide us their names of appointees to the initial board of directors,” Strohmaier said. “We’ll assemble the first board meeting some time in mid-December or January at the latest.”

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.

From a rural standpoint, advocates believe passenger rail could provide needed transportation to larger cities that sit miles away and perhaps provide some form of economic boost.

The outlook is similar in the state’s urban counties, where tourism, business connections and transportation options are vital.

“As of yesterday we have all 12 counties whose county commissioners adopted the join resolution and followed through to execute the electronic version of the resolution,” Strohmaier said. “We’re off and running.”