With the new infrastructure bill in hand, a team of bipartisan U.S. senators are directing the Federal Railroad Administration to establish a working group to study and ultimately restore passenger rail in the West and Northwest region.

The letter, led by Sen. Jon Tester and co-signed by five Republicans including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, asks the FRA to establish the Greater Northwest Working Group and work to “expedite” provisions within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The act specifically funded the restoration and enhancement of passenger rail routes outside the northeast and mid-Atlantic region, paying particular attention to rural America and underserved areas lacking daily long-distance rail service.

“The investments in Montana’s infrastructure that we secured in the bipartisan infrastructure law will be a boon for the Treasure State’s economy, and we’ve got to make sure they’re fully deployed,” Tester said. “That’s why this study is so important — restoring some of our long-distance passenger rail routes has broad bipartisan support and could have a positive impact across our state.”

The infrastructure bill made the largest investment in passenger rail since Amtrak was created more than 50 years ago. With the funding now in hand, the coalition of senators are calling for the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish the Greater Northwest Working Group.

Once established, the group will consult federal officials to achieve the intent of the infrastructure bill as it relates to passenger rail, including a deeper study into daily long-distance service provided by Amtrak. In doing so, the group will also explore all options aimed at restoration and find ways Amtrak can work with local organizations along the way.

The letter further buoyed the momentum already established by the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority and brings it closer to its goal of restoring the old North Coast Hiawatha route across southern Montana and the state's largest cities, including Missoula, Bozeman and Billings.

The route would also offer those in rural communities poised along the route a new mode of transportation to reach daily essential services. That could be of service during inclement weather.

“This letter solidifies bipartisan support behind expanding passenger rail service in Montana and beyond, including the Greater Northwest region in the nationwide study of abandoned Amtrak long-distance passenger rail routes,” rail authority chairman Dave Strohmaier told the Missoula Current. “This is a big deal, and local governments in Montana can be proud that they played a major role in making this happen.”

The number of counties comprising the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority continues to grow and already connects eastern Montana with western Montana.
The number of counties comprising the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority continues to grow and already connects eastern Montana with western Montana.

Strohmaier noted that provisions within the infrastructure bill direct national transportation officials to study discontinued long-distance routes, such as the North Coast Hiawatha and the old Pioneer Route that once connected Denver to Seattle, and serviced Salt Lake City and Boise along the way.

The Greater Northwest remains one of the areas underserved by passenger rail.

“The eight U.S. senators who signed the letter to FRA Deputy Administrator (Amit) Bose have shown the political will to take a hard look at restoring the North Coast Hiawatha and, potentially, other routes in the region,” Strohmaier added. “Creation of a Greater Northwest Working Group is a key step toward that goal, and we applaud the courage of these senators to leverage the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to this end.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), Sen. James Risch (R-ID), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).