MISSOULA — Judging from the audience for a virtual Passenger Rail Summit on Thursday, the idea of bringing passenger trains to Montana's "southern route" is generating a lot of interest.
The Rail Summit was organized by Missoula County, and others working to establish the Big Sky Rail Authority, the legal entity needed to lobby for the restoration of rail service across Southern Montana for the first time in more than 40-years.
More than 5-hundred people registered, and over 3-hundred followed the three-hour discussion. At the same time, panelists were also concerned about upcoming Amtrak service cuts on the "Empire Builder", across the Hi-Line.
Presenters explained how other regions, from the Southeast to the Cascadia Corridor in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia are benefiting from federal funding and organization. And Montana backers were urged to organize and follow the money.
“When you start talking about passenger rail everybody wants to know if the train is gonna make a profit," said Passenger Rail Association President and CEO, Jim Matthews. "And I think if we can start to assess the benefits of rail to the community and start to view this as the investment that it actually is, and to start to see the returns that come to the communities as the taxpayers return on equity or return on investment, I think we can change the conversation.”
Matthews said the Empire Builder already generates nearly five-and-a-half million dollars in direct spending and jobs in Montana, with over three million in direct visitor spending, with an overall economic impact of nearly 6-hundred million.
But he warned that could fall dramatically if Amtrak goes through with service cuts.