Effort to restore passenger rail service gaining steam

Thursday, December 2, 2021
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Recently, the effort to restore passenger rail service through Glendive and southern Montana has reached a crescendo not seen before. One year ago, in November 2020, enacting a Montana state law which allows the state’s counties to form a regional authority for the purpose of advocating for rail service and investment, 12 counties, including Dawson County as a founding member, joined together to form the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. The BSPRA has since grown to include 17 counties, and is making strong headway in working across state lines with regional partners towards the restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha and other discontinued former passenger rail routes in the Northwest.

The recent passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act should help further facilitate the chances of restoring passenger rail service through the region. The bill includes a bipartisan amendment added by Montana Sen. Jon Tester which provides USDOT with $15 million to conduct a review of discontinued routes like the North Coast Hiawatha and requires the agency to provide a report to Congress within two years of the signing of the bill with their findings and recommendations for which routes to restore. And potential funding for restoring the route is already included in the broader bill, with $12 billion appropriated in the bill for Amtrak, of which the bill directs that a minimum of 20 percent — which would be $2.4 billion — must be used for the enhancement or restoration of long-distance passenger routes outside the Northeast Corridor.

And the BSPRA recently received a “research note” — a surface-level socioeconomic study — which makes a strong case for restoring passenger rail service along the former North Coast Limited/North Coast Hiawatha route, both in terms of the number of passengers it would service and the economic benefits it would provide the communities it would service. The battle is far from won, but after 42 years without passenger rail service, the prospects for its return are looking brighter than they ever have, and hopefully one day soon Glendive will go back to its roots as passenger trains come calling again.

“For decades, the Greater Northwest Region of America has been underserved by, or completely lacking in, passenger rail service,” said BSPRA Chairman Dave Strohmaier. “With ridership on a restored North Coast Hiawatha line between Chicago and the West Coast estimated to be over 400,000 annually and projected economic benefits exceeding $270 million a year, restored passenger rail service constitutes an excellent return on our investment and would be a transformative project for our state — creating jobs and providing much needed transportation options for both rural and urban Montana communities. With 17 member counties spanning the entire width of the state, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is a testament to how Montanans, and Americans, can still agree to work together on big, bold initiatives, connecting to our past while building for our future.”