MISSOULA — Even with Amtrak announcing major service cuts, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier remains convinced restoration of passenger rail service across Montana's "southern route" is a bold step for the state's economic future.
Our world, and the economy, may have changed dramatically in the past three months -- and could still change more in the months to come. But Strohmaier believes restoration of passenger rail service through Missoula is the key to the future.
When Strohmaier first pitched the idea of forming a passenger rail authority last fall the economy was booming and transportation upgrades were an active discussion for local governments.
Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic punching everything, including passenger rail traffic, conditions are quite different. Amtrak has said it will no longer make daily stops at hundreds of stations, and the frequency of runs -- even the popular Empire Builder across the Hi-Line -- will be cut back.
Strohmaier argues we need to look beyond the pandemic, and says expanded passenger rail is a critical economic tool for recovery.
"Communicating to our Congressional delegation that, not only should we keep service strong along the Hi-Line by way of the Empire Builder, but a part of our economic recovery post-COVID-19 really needs to be investing strategically in our transportation system and our rail system," Strohmaier said.
"And we believe that a big component of that for economic recovery in Southern Montana, and also just providing a more equitable mode of transportation for many of our constituents means passenger rail."
To that end, Missoula County is writing a letter to Montana's Congressmen this week, and announcing plans for a "virtual" rail summit in September. Commissioners also plan to introduce a resolution to form a passenger rail authority, getting other counties on board.
"One of the goals, when the summit was planned in April, was to generate support for our initiative to establish a passenger rail authority across the southern tier of Montana," Strohmaier said.
"And while that's still going to be a focus of this upcoming summit, we are optimistic that in the month of July, with the help of a number of other counties along the southern tier of the state we will establish a passenger rail authority. The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority."
It will likely be a years-long effort. Strohmaier admits he's not patient. But he is persistent about pursuing the idea.
"Much to my chagrin we're not going to be able to go out tomorrow or next week, or maybe even next year and hop on a train at the north end of Higgins Avenue. But this really does help set the stage and position ourselves here in the State of Montana to expand passenger rail service, which we've been without down here for over 40-years now."
"Strohmaier says Missoula County won't be alone and says other counties are ready to sign on to the passenger rail authority.