HELENA — Advocates made the case for Lewis and Clark County residents — and elected leaders — to get involved with a campaign to bring long-distance passenger trains back to the area.
“As we emerge from this pandemic, hopefully at some point in time, we believe that part of the light at the end of this tunnel will be a passenger train,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier who serves as the chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.
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More than 100 people took part in a virtual Passenger Rail Public Forum, organized by the Sleeping Giant Citizens Council on Tuesday evening. They heard updates on the rail authority’s efforts to advocate for the restoration of passenger rail service through southern and central Montana.
The authority is an intergovernmental partnership, with 17 counties currently participating. One of their goals is to revive the North Coast Hiawatha — a former Amtrak service that ran from Chicago to Seattle — passing through many of Montana’s largest cities, including Billings, Bozeman and Missoula. The service was discontinued in 1979.
While the North Coast Hiawatha’s original route ran through Butte, that section of track is no longer in use, and advocates have speculated that a revived passenger train could instead pass through Helena.
So far, the majority of the Lewis and Clark County Commission has declined to join the rail authority.
During the forum, local supporters argued passenger rail service could make Helena a more attractive destination, provide ease of travel during the winter and offer a more environmentally friendly travel option.
Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins said the service could also be an economic driver for the community, particularly in areas around the historic rail yard and train depot.
“We’ve always wanted to open up and expand our Sixth Ward; we’ve always wanted to include Sixth Ward within the Helena area,” he said. “What an opportunity.”
But Collins also acknowledged he’s heard from a number of people who have questions and concerns about how a passenger train would be financed.
Strohmaier said he wants to see the southern route funded like other long-distance Amtrak routes — including the Empire Builder along the Hi-Line — through a combination of passenger fares and federal investment.
He said now is the best time to advocate for this service, since the recent federal infrastructure bill set aside $12 billion for intercity passenger rail, including more than $2 billion for long-distance routes.
“If a portion of them are not coming to the state of Montana, it’s going somewhere,” Strohmaier said. “So let’s get off our ideological high horse and thinking that if we turn this away, it’s going to be saved – no, it’s going to be invested somewhere else in the country.”
Strohmaier said the way forward begins with federal feasibility studies that will be looking at a number of potential route restorations, including the North Coast Hiawatha. After that, he said it will be important for people in Montana to advocate loudly for that route to be selected.
Organizers of Tuesday’s forum encouraged people to sign a petition, calling on Lewis and Clark County commissioners to join the rail authority. They argued it’s important for the county to “have a seat at the table” as decisions are made in the coming months and years.
“In my opinion, if this got built and it didn’t go through Helena, that would just be an absolute tragedy,” said Jeremy Johnson, a Carroll College political science professor who was one of the speakers at the forum.
Before the meeting, MTN News spoke to Lewis and Clark County Commission chair Jim McCormick, who has been one of the commissioners opposed to immediate participation in the rail authority.
McCormick said county leaders are interested in the opportunities of passenger rail, but they still have some unanswered questions.
“We have our ears open; we are listening,” he said.
While the county hasn’t officially joined the authority, McCormick said they have contributed $10,000 to support a feasibility study.
He said one of his main questions has been what powers the rail authority would have, especially whether they would have the ability to put taxes on county residents.
He is also concerned about the possibility that a southern Montana train could be designated a regional route instead of a long-distance route — requiring the state or local governments to contribute additional funding.
Strohmaier said during the forum that the authority combines some of Montana’s most conservative counties as well as its most liberal, so he doubted they would propose a tax unless it had extremely broad support.
He said, even if they do put a tax up for a vote, it would be implemented on a county-by-county basis, so no one would be charged unless their own county approved the tax.