For more than a century, passenger rail has been a part of Montana’s heritage, culture and economy. It is currently a lifeline for Hi-Line communities. And, without a doubt, it is part of Montana’s future.
In the fall of 2020, 12 counties in Montana, stretching from Sanders to Wibaux, came together to create the first regional passenger rail authority in Montana’s history – the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. In the past year, we added five additional counties to the authority, ex-officio representation from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Crow and Northern Cheyenne, and Amtrak; and BNSF Railway is a partner charting the course to expand and improve passenger rail service in Montana and beyond.
With 17 counties, we are now the largest transportation district in the state of Montana and a subdivision of state government. In our short existence, we have become a national leader in efforts to expand the nation’s long-distance passenger rail network. And, besides our primary goal of re-establishing the east-west route from the North Hiawatha Coast through southern Montana that was severed in 1979, we fully support a strong and vital Empire Builder. In fact, in the spring of 2021, the authority sent an official letter to members of Congress supporting the restoration of Empire Builder to daily service.
The Hi-Line knows very well the importance of the Empire Builder – connecting rural communities, providing a way to access health care via an all-weather mode of travel for those who might have few other options. of transportation, connecting Montana to the greater region and nation, and back, allowing people from all over America to access Glacier National Park and all that northern Montana has to offer.
We admire the hard work of passenger rail advocates along the Hi-Line and believe these efforts are worth emulating. Indeed, far from harming the Empire Builder, expanding our national rail network and restoring the Hiawatha North Shore will create greater connectivity in our state and throughout the Greater Northwest region. It will provide rail access to Montana’s second iconic national park, Yellowstone, bring people to gems like Makoshika State Park and a myriad of other recreational destinations, and also connect cities, towns and areas rural southern Montana to the nation. It will even allow us to connect the North and South levels of Montana by creating links with the Empire Builder in Sandpoint, Idaho, and Fargo, ND – increasing the ridership and benefits of both lines.
For too long, we’ve lived with a skeletal passenger rail network in this country – limping, often set up for failure and locked in a defensive posture that offers little room for creative thought. What’s different now? Not only do we have a passenger rail authority, but we understand that just like our interstate highway system or our airline industry, more connections and routes strengthen the overall system.
More importantly, when it comes to passenger rail, the recently passed bipartisan Infrastructure Act offers a way forward that we haven’t seen in a generation or more. In addition to the dollars this legislation directs to Amtrak to upgrade and improve the existing national long-distance network, including the Empire Builder, significant funds are allocated to the Federal Railroad Administration to improve intercity passenger rail transportation to the tune of 12 billion dollars, of which a minimum of 2.4 billion dollars must be devoted to the expansion of the national interurban network. That means places like Montana. If we turn our backs on this, make no mistake, those dollars will go elsewhere.
The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is all about walking and chewing gum at the same time. We can improve the Empire Builder and at the same time better serve rural Montanese by restoring the nation’s 16th long-distance route: North Coast Hiawatha. As Montanese and as a railroad authority, we are demonstrating as we speak – and the nation is watching – how we can work together across political, ideological and urban-rural divides to create a positive transportation future that serves all Montanese and Americans. .
To learn more about the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, visit our website at bigskyrail.org, find us on YouTube or Facebook, or join our virtual town hall meetings. All aboard!
BSPRA Executive Committee Dave Strohmaier, Chairman (Missoula County), Jason Stuart, Vice Chairman (Dawson County) and Jerry McDonald, Treasurer (Sanders County).