MISSOULA — An effort to reestablish passenger rail across the southern reach of Montana gained a welcome partner this week when Dawson County voted to join Missoula County in establishing the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.
While other counties along the old North Coast Hiawatha Route in southern Montana are expected to join the upstart rail authority, Dawson and Missoula counties are enough to officially form the authority under state law.
“With Missoula County’s participation, we now have the required two counties on board to do this,” said Missoula County commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “We’ll continue trying to add some additional counties to the list over the next couple of weeks before we roll into adoption. Suffice it to say, though, we’ve reached a significant milestone in getting this over the finish line.”
Missoula County crafted a draft resolution in early June and agreed to send it out to the nearly two-dozen counties poised along the southern route. With Dawson County on board, the resolution can be finalized and voted upon by each participating county.
Other counties will be added if and when they agree to join.
“Dawson County held a public comment last night (Tuesday) at our session and voted to move forward with passing the resolution to join the rail authority,” Dawson County Commissioner Dennis Zander told Missoula County in an email. “Once you get your final resolution draft with the other participating counties we will hold our public comment period and pass the resolution. This would be an exciting opportunity for our area.”
Montana has struggled to establish and maintain in-state air service, though passenger rail could link cities and towns across the state’s 630 mile span. Glendive, the seat of Dawson County, sits roughly 440 miles from Missoula.
Supporters of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority aim to further the economic prosperity of the region by advocating for rail as a means of public transportation. Advocates note that similar rail authorities have shown success on the economic front, including the Southern Rail Commission across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
“The end game is to put in place an organizational structure to move this initiative forward and try to get passenger rail service back in Bozeman, in Missoula, Billings and elsewhere,” Strohmaier said. “I’ve heard from our business community and Montana High Tech Business Alliance members that this would be a transformative project from an economic standpoint.”
Strohmaier broke the news of Dawson County’s intent to join the authority during a meeting with Rep. Greg Gianforte, who said he has advocated for Amtrak and the Empire Builder route across Montana’s northern tier.
The southern route is home to the state’s most populous and fastest growing cities, including Missoula, Bozeman, Billings and Butte. Gianforte suggested backers start small by working with the Washington Corp. to establish a football train.
“I always believe that with football games, you can sell out a train to Bozeman for Bobcat games, sell out a train to Missoula for Grizzly games,” Gianforte said. “Washington Corp owns the rail. They would be a logical partner. If you work with Washington Corp. to put passenger rail together just around football games, you could sell out a train to Bobcat games or sell out a train for Grizzly games.”
Such a route could also provide an efficient means of transportation across the state and beyond, advocates have said.
Amtrak ran the North Coast Hiawatha across Montana’s southern tier from 1971 to 1979. The route included Miles City, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Paradise, among other communities.
It originates in Chicago and ends in Sand Point, Idaho, where passengers could continue on to either Portland or Seattle.
“They own the track, they own the engines, they have the passenger cars,” Gianforte said of the Washington Corp. “All you need are tickets and passengers.”