Connecting state and local government leaders
Cuts in the late 1970s ended Amtrak service across southern Montana. Now, a county-led coalition wants to bring it back.
More than a dozen Montana counties have banded together in an effort to bring Amtrak service back to the southern part of the state, hoping that the year-old federal infrastructure law will finally help them restore a train line lost decades ago.
The one-of-a-kind effort might be unique to Montana, but it underscores the stakes for cities and local governments as the federal government considers major expansions to passenger rail service for the first time in decades.
“There’s a strong economic case to be made for passenger rail because trains are economic lifelines. They’re transportation lifelines,” said Jason Stuart, the vice chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and the head of an economic development agency in eastern Montana. “All these communities in this part of the world here on the northern Plains are all in the same situation: We’re so far distant from anything.”
Dave Strohmaier, a Missoula County commissioner who lives more than 500 miles west of Stuart, is chair of the Big Sky authority. He said restoring an old Amtrak route would also link the state’s major urban centers – Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula – while giving more options to rural communities.
“This provides transportation options to seniors, to veterans and to students,” he said, noting that the rail route would connect the state’s major universities and help people reach key hospitals.
Various Montana politicians and advocates have pushed to connect Montana’s biggest cities via passenger rail since the early days of Amtrak, which the federal government created in 1971 to take over the job of ferrying people from financially struggling freight carriers.
The newly created railroad ran the North Coast Hiawatha between Chicago and Seattle, which served the southern Montana cities, until Congress enacted major cuts for Amtrak in 1979. (While Montana lost the southern route, it kept the Empire Builder in the north. That train travels from Chicago to either Portland or Seattle, with stops in Montana around Glacier National Park.)
Cutting the route left people in much of Montana with few options to get from one city to another, other than driving. Several cities have air service, but flights generally connect to out-of-state hubs making travel within Montana expensive and time-consuming. Montana’s landscape makes driving difficult, given the long distances between cities and treacherous winter weather. Montana regularly has one of the highest traffic fatality rates per mile driven of any state in the country.
City councils and other local governments have pushed state and federal lawmakers to find a way to restore the service, but those efforts went nowhere, said Strohmaier, who previously served on the Missoula City Council.
But when Strohmaier got elected to the county board, he discovered that Montana law granted counties the right to come together to form their own rail authorities. State lawmakers gave counties that power in the 1990s to help with preserving short-line routes for grain shipping, but the law does not limit their jurisdiction to freight.
Strohmaier led an effort to get other counties on board, and the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority launched with an initial 12 counties in 2020. It has since grown to 19 counties and includes three tribal nations whose land the route would pass through. BNSF, the freight railroad that owns the tracks over which the new service would pass, is on the rail authority’s board. The Montana Department of Transportation also has a non-voting member who is part of the group’s board.
A Different Approach
Rail advocates around the country are hoping to expand passenger service, thanks to new money contained in last year’s federal infrastructure package.
Most of that attention has been on state-supported routes, where individual states help subsidize new service. That type of arrangement is for routes of 750 miles or less.
But that’s not the kind of setup the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is looking for. Instead, it’s hoping that it can get new service under a separate part of the law that gives money to Amtrak to expand its national network, or longer-distance routes.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, ensured that Biden’s infrastructure law contained a provision to require the Federal Railroad Administration to study the feasibility of reinstating discontinued Amtrak routes, such as the North Coast Hiawatha.
That means that the expansion won’t depend on state dollars, a selling point in a Republican-controlled state government.
Rob Stapley, the administrator of the Montana Department of Transportation’s rail, transit and planning division, said the state agency still needed more information about the proposed expansion – particularly how it would be paid for – before supporting the idea.
“We do not have additional funds just laying around waiting for something like this to spend it on, so [we are] making sure that it is funded and that it does not have a negative impact to the rest of our modes of transportation,” he said. But if Amtrak funds the new route the way it does the Empire Builder in the north, the state would support it, “for sure,” he added.
Stapley said the state is interested in the potential benefits the new service would bring, especially if it makes highways safer and reduces carbon dioxide pollution, which is a major point of emphasis by the Biden administration and its Federal Highway Administration.
Strohmaier said restoring the route through southern Montana would address a “big gaping hole” in existing Amtrak service.
“We would like to shift the center of gravity of passenger rail in this country a little bit farther to the west, because there’s a huge portion of this country that when it comes to public transportation is really underserved,” he said.
People outside the region might be skeptical of the need to spend money on rail in a sparsely populated area, he acknowledged, but said that under that logic, “we would never have an interstate highway in Montana.”
“The idea of a national network of transportation is that you are providing a means to transfer goods and services to people across the country, not necessarily just serving what might be perceived as a sparsely populated area,” he said. The goal isn’t just to connect Billings to Missoula, it’s to connect both of them to cities outside the state, too. “Where you really get your bang for the buck is connecting us to the broader nation.”
And the rail authority has tried to build excitement beyond Montana for the expansion. It hosted two conferences, including one this summer in Billings, to generate interest about passenger rail in the Northwest, which included Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose as a speaker.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, delivered a video statement to the conference, in which he expressed support for the new route. The restored Hiawatha North Coast would link Fargo to the state capital of Bismarck and Medora in the western part of the state.
Burgum remembered taking the train as a child, when he and his family would travel to Billings to visit his cousins who lived there and said the route would benefit North Dakota’s tourism industry.
“In North Dakota, tourism is our third-largest industry. Restoring that passenger rail service along I-94 could have significant economic benefit, attracting visitors to North Dakota’s most-visited attractions, including the historic town of Medora,” he said. Burgum noted that Medora houses the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and will be home to Roosevelt’s presidential library and museum.
“Citizens across our nation … should have the opportunity to arrive at that location in the same way that TR did,” he said.
Big Sky has also endorsed other projects that would benefit passenger rail, as part of its campaign. It supported BNSF’s application for a federal loan to improve stretches of the Empire Builder in northern Montana. And Montana mayors have backed Chicago’s plans for improvements to its Union Station.
“There’s a tendency, certainly here in Montana, maybe elsewhere in the country, for local government jurisdictions to focus inward,” Strohmaier said. “At a larger scale, you can actually accomplish some things that will benefit your own jurisdiction and your own constituents. But it means collaborating with and working with other folks who may not even be in the same state or may be hundreds of miles away.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.