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Lewis and Clark County set to join Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority

The Lewis and Clark County courthouse. The county voted 3-0 on Tuesday to join the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is set to gain another member as Lewis and Clark County moves closer to joining.

Landing the seat of state government would mark what members of the rail authority described as a milestone, and it may not be the last.

Lewis and Clark County voted 3-0 this week to hold a public hearing over joining the group. Carbon County is at the same stage.

“This is big news to finally have the county that is home to the seat of state government actively involved in this effort,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Farther east, Carbon County is also moving down this track.”

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.

It has since held several official meetings and gained the attention of media outlets across the county, including the New York Times. It also has gained an ally in Amtrak.

“We’ll be your conduit to your host railroad,” Rob Eaton, director of government affairs for Amtrak, told the authority last month. “What I hope to do is work with you as you develop your vision.”

Strohmaier spent nearly a year developing an approach to form the authority and was officially joined by the Missoula County Board of Commissioners in the effort. The authority only requires two participating counties to become official.

Since then, however, the authority has gained county partners from across Montana’s southern tier. Members now stretch from the state’s eastern border with North Dakota to its western border with Idaho.

Netting two more counties, including Lewis and Clark, would give the organization even more momentum.

“This is a big one,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

Amtrak’s defunct North Coast Hiawatha ran from eastern Montana through Billings, Bozeman and Missoula up until 1979, terminating in Sand Point, Idaho, where it connected with the Empire Builder.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is looking to restore the route, though other connections could be made along the way, including a route between Salt Lake City and Butte, and another between Denver and Billings.

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