The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority held its second official board meeting this week, selecting officers from across the state while courting additional counties.
Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who helped spearhead the authority’s formation, was appointed as the board’s inaugural president.
“We are off to the races,” Strohmaier said Thursday. “Getting this thing up and running is like constructing the train as it’s running down the tracks. We’re trying to feel our way through this.”
A dozen participating counties spanning Montana from east to west officially formed the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority in early December, marking the first time such an organization has ever been formed in the state.
In its first order of business, the authority secured the advice of the Local Government Center at Montana State University to help develop the panel’s bylaws and other governing issues.
On Wednesday, in its second official meeting, the authority appointed its officers and fielded interest from several additional counties. Amtrak also joined the discussion.
“We had a county commission from Carbon County on the line. He’s fully engaged. They’re ready to pull the trigger and join on as county number thirteen,” Strohmaier said, adding that Lewis and Clark County has expressed interest as well.
If it joined, Lewis and Clark would bring the number of participating counties to 14, spanning the state’s southern tier from west to east.
“Lewis and Clark County is turning the bend, perhaps,” said Strohmaier. “Commissioner (Andy) Hunthausen was on the line. My fingers are crossed. They might connect the dots in western Montana and come on board.”
The authority’s official formation culminated an effort that began in October 2019. With the authority officially established, it’s now tackling the mundane but necessary steps of organizing the board’s officers, bylaws and other governing matters.
Its ultimate goal is to restore Amtrak service across the old North Coast Hiawatha line, which ran from 1971 to 1979. The route included Miles City, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Missoula and Paradise, among other communities.
A number of volunteers also have lent their service, including former Montana state budget director Dan Bucks and Missoula County’s Chief Financial Officer Andrew Czorny.
“I did volunteer to participate on the finance committee,” Czorny said. “I’m excited about that.”