MISSOULA — Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said the varied nature of the counties signing on to the new Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority shows widespread interest in returning passenger trains to Southern Montana.
With Powell County signing the joint resolution last week, the new Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority became official, opening the way for an effort to restore passenger rail to Montana's southern route for the first time in more than 40 years. But now the real work begins.
"Each of the 12 participating counties will appoint members to the initial board of directors of the Rail Authority," Strohmaier explained. "And then we'll go about scheduling our first board meeting, and I hope that will happen sometime in the month of December or at the latest January."
Strohmaier first pitched the idea last fall, but he's been promoting the concept for well over a decade. He's encouraged with the different counties signing on, saying it shows a diversity of support.
“It’s been my goal all along to make sure that folks -- whether you live in a rural part of Montana or an urban area -- recognized the value that passenger rail can bring to you and your community and your friends and neighbors," Strohmaier said.
"And that has really played out in the 12 founding counties of the Big Sky passenger rail authority. And I think that adds credibility that this is not just a western Montana or an urban thing, but the folks across the state find value in it," he added.
As the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is formed an old idea is brought back to the table -- could the trains run over Homestake Pass?
"That route has been defunct for decades, so the path of least resistance in terms of an operational rail line currently goes through Helena. And that's just recognizing that that line is in use today," Strohmaier told MTN News.
"That would be the easiest line to probably get back into service, but for the folks who live in Butte-Silver Bow County and Southwest Montana, they've said loud and clear that they at least want that option on the table," he continued.
It's now up to the Authority to figure out how to convince federal officials passenger rails should roll between Billings and Missoula, and points in between. The move comes even as Amtrak has been moving to cut service across the Hi Line route, but backers are confident in the long-term merits of the proposal.