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National association recognizes Missoula County for southern passenger rail push

Amtrak photo

While the train hasn’t yet left the station, the National Association of Counties has recognized Missoula County for its innovation and leadership in getting the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority up and running in a push to restore service to the state’s southern tier. 

The association on Tuesday awarded Missoula County its 2021 Achievement Award, recognizing its effort to unify other counties along the old southern route in a collective push to restore the North Coast Hiawatha.

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who has spearheaded the effort and currently serves as the rail authority’s inaugural president, called the achievement a team effort that spans the state from east to west.

“There’s 13 counties on board so far with a few more waiting in the wings,” said Strohmaier. “We hope that what we’ve accomplished in Montana will inspire other counties across the nation to work together on big goals, bridging the ideological and geographic and rural divides that too often split us apart.”

Missoula County was among 12 founding counties to establish the rail authority, which has since gained a new member with others poised to join.

The push has gained the support of Amtrak and has drawn media attention around the world. 

Among it, the New York Times ran an article titled, “In Rural Montana, a Hope That Biden Will Reopen the Rails.” It was followed a week later by an article in Publico, a Portuguese newspaper, under the heading “The train in rural America is waiting for the ‘Amtrak Joe’ push.”

Commissioner Josh Slotnick played off the Amtrak Joe label on Tuesday in acknowledging the work that has taken place to bring the effort this far.

“We have Amtrak Joe in office and money set aside for rail,” said Slotnick. “The stars have aligned.”

While state politics can be divisive based on geographical and cultural differences, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has managed to unify counties across the southern tier, both rural and urban.

Membership currently ranges from Wibaux and Prairie counties in the east to Jefferson and Granite counties further west. The region’s larger counties, including Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow and Gallatin counties have also joined.

“No one would have believed the rural-urban, red-blue divide could be crossed at all,” said Slotnick. “We were cemented in our trenches. Two years later, we have a rail authority built of counties that represent urban areas, rural areas, red areas and blue areas, all united around the desire to see passenger rail restored to the southern tier of Montana.”

Several passenger rail lobby groups with ties to Washington, D.C., also are watching the effort, along with a growing number of advocates from across the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.

“Over the past year, county officials and frontline employees have demonstrated bold, inspirational leadership,” NACo President Gary More said of Missoula County. “This year’s Achievement Award illustrates the innovative ways counties build healthy, safe and vibrant communities across America.”

Also on Tuesday, Tester announced the return of daily Amtrak service to the Hi-Line, which resumed  after cuts made to the agency furloughed employees and reduced service to just three days a week. Tester’s legislation reversing those cuts was included in the American Rescue Plan, and signed into law in March.