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Southern Montana passenger rail is included on a federal list and is funded



Missoula, Montana – The federal government this week announced $500,000 in seed financing and admitted the route into the Federal Railroad Authority’s Corridor Identification Program, which is a major step toward restoring passenger rail across Montana’s southern tier.

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.”

Acceptance into the program, according to Missoula County Commissioner and chairman of the rail authority Dave Strohmaier, also carries a promise to future funding that will assist bring restoration closer to reality.

By adding it all up, Strohmaier said the train was out of 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.”

Strohmaier noted that the rail authority will invite state, municipal, and tribal governments in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon to participate in the route design process as part of the Corridor ID study efforts.

Although there are already 20 member counties and tribes along the Montana segment of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, additional member counties and city partners are welcome to participate in the restoration process.

“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.”

Up to $2.3 billion in funding for intercity passenger rail is expected to be provided under the Federal-State Partnership. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which gave Montana over $15 million this week to upgrade its passenger rail network and assist the Empire Builder, which crosses Montana’s northern tier, is partially responsible for the financing.

In addition to being established in 2019 to restore the North Coast Hiawatha in southern Montana, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has been a prominent proponent of 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 supported the initiative and contributed to its money this week. He still believes that the North Coast Hiawatha should be restored.

“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.”

The program’s major rail projects are a component of President Joe Biden’s $66 billion infrastructure investment plan for passenger rail. This signifies the highest amount of money allocated to passenger rail since Amtrak’s founding in 1971.

Supporters of increased or restored passenger rail service contend that it will boost the economies of the communities it passes through and link rural areas to larger cities.

“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.”


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