Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Efforts to restore passenger rail across Montana's southern tier received a significant boost on Friday 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.”

Rail authority chairman and Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said acceptance into the program also brings a commitment to future funds that will help push restoration closer to reality.

Add it up and the train, Strohmaier said, has left the station.

“By entering the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor ID and Development Program, we now have access to resources to complete the planning and engineering work necessary to restore the North Coast Hiawatha, which is a huge win for Montana and the Greater Northwest region,” Strohmaier told the Missoula Current. “For those skeptics out there, be skeptical no longer.”

As part of the Corridor ID study efforts, Strohmaier said 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.

While the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority already includes 20 member counties and tribes across Montana's portion of the route, it's still open to welcoming new member counties and municipal partners who want to be involved in restoration.

“In three short years, the rail Authority has gone from a fledgling regional rail authority to a regional and national passenger rail powerhouse,” Strohmaier said. “We’ve also demonstrated the ability of local governments to work across jurisdictional boundaries on big ideas and big initiatives.”

The Federal-State Partnership for intercity passenger rail is poised to fund up to $2.3 billion annually. The funding stems in part from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which awarded Montana nearly $15 million this week to make major improvements to its passenger rail network, including support for the Empire Builder, which crosses Montana's northern tier.

While the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority formed in 2019 to restore the North Coast Hiawatha in southern Montana, it has also emerged as a leading advocate for the Empire Builder.

“We’re committed to a strong and vibrant Empire Builder, which is why we partnered with Amtrak on the Federal-State Partnership grant application, resulting in a grant of $14.9 million to do rail infrastructure work near Malta,” Strohmaier said.

Sen. Jon Tester has backed the program and helped secure this week's funding. He remains supportive of efforts to restore the North Coast Hiawatha.

“I’ll always fight to keep rural America connected, and investments in passenger rail will help Montana’s families and small businesses competitive in the 21st century,” Tester said. “When negotiating my bipartisan infrastructure law with my colleagues, I fought hard to ensure that we invested in renewed Amtrak service, and I can’t think of a better place to explore than the North Coast Hiawatha route.”

Major rail projects included in the program are part of President Joe Biden's infrastructure investment plan, which allocated $66 billion for passenger rail. It represents the larger sum invested in passenger rail since the formation of Amtrak in 1971.

Advocates of restored or expanded passenger rail service believe it will connect small towns to urban centers and bring economic benefits to stops along the route.

“We're thrilled to represent the Greater Northwest, which has been underserved by public transportation for far too long,” said Strohmaier. “It’s about time that the rural American West is reflected in federal passenger rail investments.”