The newest member of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority could lie north of Missoula in Lake County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which have expressed interest in joining.
Lake County this week adopted a resolution of intent to join the authority and will vote on the issue next week. Former Polson city planning director Juan Escano said the “stars are aligning” and interest in joining the authority is nearly universal.
“Everyone is doing transportation development and there’s a number of discussions going on,” Escano said. “Ultimately, we need connectivity. We can’t continue to be isolated.”
If Lake County joined the authority, it would bring its membership to roughly 18 counties and three tribal nations including the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Salish and Kootenai.
Together, the broad organization of members stretches across Montana and is working to restore passenger rail along the North Coast Hiawatha route, which Amtrak discontinued in the 1970s.
But Missoula County commissioner and rail authority chairman Dave Strohmaier believes the Federal Railroad Administration will include the North Coast Hiawatha and Pioneer routes in the Daily Long-Distance Service Study mandated by Congress.
“They said that it’s clear, based on their reading of the statute, that the North Coast Hiawatha is among the routes Congress is directing the FRA to study for restoration, as is the Pioneer route,” Strohmaier said last month.
Restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha would connect most of Montana’s major cities including Missoula, Butte, Bozeman and Billings. But it would also stimulate rural counties along the route, providing both a boon in visitation and easier access to major markets.
“It would give us the ability to bring tourism in an easier way into the region,” Escano said of Lake County, Polson and the tribe. “These are the things we’re contemplating. All of us are on the same page and excited about this.”
The long-distance service study will provide a foundational look at what will be needed to restore specific passenger routes that have been discontinued. Much has changed in Montana since the Hiawatha route closed include a growing population and several thriving cities.
The Pioneer route would also restore service from Salt Lake City to Seattle with stops in Pocatello, Boise and Portland.
While Lake County sits north of the Hiawatha route, Escano said some are eyeing possible restoration of defunct rail spurs that could connect the region to Missoula.
“Without a doubt, it’s going to be a big lift. We’ve been off the grid for a while and we’ll have to restore bridges and right-of-way,” Escano said. “But we’re looking to attract businesses to stimulate and create jobs for our communities. If we had rail, we could accelerate the growth of those business. The price of shipping our products would cost less. It would leverage the ability to have tourism and some light industrial.”
Escano acknowledged the potential cost of restoring and reconnecting rail across the region but believes the economic benefits make it a worthy endeavor. He also believes there may be creative ways to help fund such efforts including nontraditional private-public partnerships.
“A number of factors are emerging that can make the discussion of bringing back rail a viable one, such as increasing fuel price trends, increased highway and air traffic congestion, increased demand for non-automobile travel options, and a need to get people and products faster from one point to the other at a lower cost in order to maintain competitive advantages,” he said. “We have ignored these mobility improvements for decades. It is time that we address them.”