Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Montana Rail Link and Missoula County could take a number of railroad crossings on the Bitterroot branch line from Lolo to Florence out of service to improve vehicle movement.

But the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority – along with the county – would first like to explore the issue a little deeper and the role the Bitterroot line may or may not play in the future.

“They're not abandoning the crossings, they're just putting them on an out-of-service status so we can remove those and make the at-grade crossings for vehicular traffic a little more convenient,” said Erik Dickson with Public Works.

Dixon said the county was working with Montana Rail Link last fall on utility crossing permits for the Lolo Water and Sewer District when the railroad offered to place the crossings under “tracks out of service' status.

MRL said it had no immediate demand for service to the Bitterroot Valley and removing the crossings would be mutually beneficial.

“It's really a benefit to both MRL and us,” said Dixon. “They'll take the crossings out so they don't have to maintain any crossings, and we don't have to maintain the asphalt leading up to the crossing. Someday in the future, if there is demand, MRL would reestablish the crossings.”

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said county staff hasn't yet discussed the proposal and its potential impacts on future rail plans. The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is working to restore passenger service across the state's southern tier.

Some have envisioned a day when a commuter line connects the growing towns and booming population withing the Bitterroot Valley to the retail and economic hub that is Missoula.

“The rail authority has a stake in this, as does Missoula County,” said Strohmaier, who also serves as chairman of the rail authority. “Nothing bothers me as far as the future potential of reactivating the (Bitterroot) line, but we've been in discussions with MRL and the Washington Corps. about the future of the Bitterroot branch, and I'd like some additional context for this.”