A measured tucked into this year's Surface Transportation Investment Act could add momentum to a statewide effort to restore passenger rail to Montana's vast southern tier, as well as other routes across the rural West.

Sen. Jon Tester last week added an amendment to the act providing $15 million to study the restoration of long-distance passenger rail routes that have been discontinued.

More specifically, the amendment includes language that puts former routes in the rural West, including the North Coast Hiawatha across southern Montana and the Pioneer route, which once connect Salt Lake City to Seattle, at the front of those studies.

“Senator Tester understands the value of expanding the national passenger rail network, including in Montana, and we’re grateful that the Tester amendment will direct the secretary of Transportation to take a hard look at doing just that,” said Dave Strohmaier, the authority's chair. “This will set the stage for restoring passenger rail through the southern part of our state.”

Strohmaier, who also serves as a Missoula County commissioner, said the amendment included language suggested by the Montana rail authority and the larger Greater Northwest Working Group.

The later is a coalition of passenger rail groups and supporters from across the region who are working across party lines to restore and enhance passenger routes in the Northwest. Tester's amendment also has the support of Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi.

"Montana is a big state, and folks here depend on reliable transportation to stay connected and do business," Tester told the Missoula Current. "But right now burdensome regulations make it harder for workers in the transportation sector to do their jobs, which is why I am pushing these bipartisan provisions to cut unnecessary red tape, create more good-paying transportation jobs, and make it easier and safer to travel across Big Sky Country.”

Mississippi is home to the successful Southern Rail Commission, which recognized the formation of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority last year. In doing so, its director noted the role the Montana group could play in helping passenger rail lobby for congressional support.

That wide support, from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South – and counties across southern Montana – has members of Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority hopeful.

Jason Stuart, the authority's vice chair and executive director of the Dawson County Economic Development Council in Glendive, said it was time the Northwest received “equal attention and treatment” with passenger rail service.

In rural Montana, he added, it's seen as an economic opportunity and a means to connect rural residents with city services along the state's southern tier.

“We hope that all of our respective congressional delegations have received that message loud and clear and will work together in a bipartisan manner to ensure that the final version of the bill that the president signs includes the Tester amendment,” he said.

Tester spokesperson Roy Loewenstein agreed, saying Tester supports passenger rail in rural America.

“As a farmer who is a stone’s throw away from the Empire Builder, Senator Tester knows that passenger rail is an economic boon to rural America. And there’s no better example than the Empire Builder, which not only adds fuel to the Hi-Line’s economy, helping businesses grow and create jobs, it also keeps Montanans connected to their families across the country," Loewenstein said.

"Senator Tester often says that he gets his best ideas from folks on the ground, and he is going to continue to work with local stakeholders throughout the state to ensure transportation and economic needs across Montana are being met.”