Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority on Wednesday agreed to apply for a federal grant to make improvements to rail infrastructure along the Hi-Line to benefit the existing Empire Builder.

While it may seem a strange play for an authority created to restore service to southern Montana, members of the group believe that a strong Empire Builder will only help enhance the restoration of passenger service elsewhere in the state.

“We've heard again and again from those who are skeptical or paranoid about the idea that expanding passenger rail service might adversely impact the Empire Builder,” said board president Dave Strohmaier. “We've long said it's not an either-or. A strong Empire Building will strengthen and enhance expanded passenger rail service elsewhere.

The Hi-Line route is part of the larger rail network operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which serves as Montana's host railroad.

But single entities like BNSF cannot apply for the federal grant. Rather, Strohmaier said, BNSF approached the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority and asked it to apply for the $15 million federal grant on the railroad's behalf.

If awarded, the funding would make improvements to the Hi-Line route between Malta and Havre. Doing so would also punctuate the partnership between freight and passenger rail in Montana – a relationship that's not as smooth in other parts of the country.

“BNSF approached the rail authority, given that we've established ourselves as a statewide and national leader in passenger rail issues, to apply on their behalf for a grant that would enhance passenger rail operations along the Hi-Line,” Strohmaier said. “It's a grant to make improvements to rail infrastructure. It's a pretty big deal.”

In the two years since forming, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has grown to include member counties stretching 600 miles from Montana's western and eastern boarders. The counties lie along the old North Coast Hiawatha Route, where advocates hope to restore passenger rail.

The organization has made headway in recent years and strongly believes that a pending federal study on recommended routes where passenger rail should be restored will include the North Coast Hiawatha.

But as the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has grown its voice and presence on the national stage – and has gained the attention of the Federal Railroad Administration as a result – some in northern Montana have expressed concern that restoring the North Coast Hiawatha could come at the cost of the Empire Builder.

The rail authority has excused such concerns as being far from factual and hopes its application for the $15 million infrastructure grant serves as proof.

“We ant to demonstrate that making improvements along the Hi-Line will enhance the long-term performance of Amtrak's Empire Builder, and that it benefits all those communities in northern Montana,” Strohmaier said. “We're one of the only entities in the state that's well-poised to do this, and we're doing it in conjunction with the host railroad (BNSF).”