Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) After a brief meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation this week, the chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is feeling optimistic about the realities of a restored Amtrak route across Montana's southern tier.

Dave Strohmaier, who also serves as a Missoula County Commissioner, spoke briefly with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg this week. The secretary mentioned passenger rail during his address on infrastructure funding, and he also noted Montana's efforts to restore the North Coast Hiawatha when talking with Strohmaier.

“He did mention the Corridor Identification Program, and he knows we're a part of it,” said Strohmaier. “It means this North Coast Hiawatha route is the only new long-distance route in the United States that will be in the project development pipeline.”

Efforts to restore passenger rail across Montana's southern tier received a significant boost in December when the federal government announced $500,000 in seed funding and accepted the route into the Federal Railroad Authority's Corridor Identification Program.

The funding calls on the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority to develop a scope, schedule and cost estimate for “preparing, completing, or documenting its service development plan.”

Strohmaier said that as part of the Corridor ID study efforts, the rail authority will invite state, local and tribal governments in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho, Washington and Oregon to consult in the planning process for the route.

The push to restore the North Coast Hiawatha began in 2019. The route would connect Chicago and Seattle across more than a dozen Montana counties.

“Within the next couple months, we'll hire a consulting team to begin work on a service development plan for this entire route,” Strohmaier said. “In 18 months to two years, we'll have a plan and we'll begin the engineering and environmental analysis, and we'll be off to the races.”