Missoula County is asking the state's congressional delegation to back elements of a federal surface transportation bill that could authorize five new rail commissions and create a federal working group to restore passenger rail service across the Northern Rockies.

The letter, sent to both Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, asks them to take an active role in writing portions of the surface transportation bill related to rail and ensure that it includes the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies region.

“In the U.S. Senate, there's work begin done on the surface transportation bill, which will have a section devoted to passenger rail,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “This is in the spirit of striking while the iron is hot.”

This week, three other Montana counties poised along the old North Coast Hiawatha route joined Missoula County in a push to establish the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. The authority, which would serve as the governing body, is expected to be adopted in July.

With that effort moving forward, Missoula County is asking Tester and Daines to back legislative efforts to reauthorize the surface transportation bill. Among other things, it would establish five new multi-state rail commissions, not unlike the Southern Rail Commission established by Congress in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

That commission works across state lines to enhance and grow passenger rail in the region. Those behind the local effort would like to see a similar commission established in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.

“Some of the language that's currently under consideration in the Senate right now would be to authorize five additional multi-state rail commissions,” Strohmaier said. “This would be our opportunity to get out in front of this and make sure that one of those rail commissions is in our region here in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest.”

The letter to Daines and Tester also seeks the creation of a working group to represent the region. Strohmaier said it would be modeled after the Gulf Coast Working Group to conduct the various studies and economic analysis needed to get the rail opened.

They're also asking Congress to direct the Federal Railroad Administration to include a similar study under the purview of the proposed Northwest-Northern Rockies Working Group.

“This would include, at a minimum, the North Coast Hiawatha route, but could also include the Pioneer route and previously existing passenger rail from Denver to Billings and from Salt Lake to Butte,” the letter says.

The effort, launched last year, has been gaining momentum in recent months, drawing interest from cities in surround states, including Boise, along with several counties along Montana's southern tier.

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.

“We believe that restoring passenger rail service to the southern tier of the state would be a transformative project for Montana,” the county's letter states. “And with reauthorization of the surface transportation bill under consideration, Congress is poised to play a leadership role in economic recovery and innovation, including here in Montana.”