MISSOULA — The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority grew to 10 Montana counties on Tuesday in a growing effort to restore Amtrak service to the state’s southern tier.
While passenger rail service has contracted nationally during the pandemic, Sen. Jon Tester said it enjoys bipartisan support in the Senate and could be eyed for investment down the road with the aid of an infrastructure bill.
“We do have some bipartisan support for rail in the Senate to continue to put pressure on Amtrak after the election, regardless of the outcome, to make sure we maintain rail service,” Tester told Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday. “We’ve got to get it to a point to get a commitment after the pandemic.”
Missoula County adopted a draft resolution to create the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority in early June and sent it out to the nearly two-dozen counties poised along the old North Coast Hiawatha Route in southern Montana.
On Tuesday, Prairie County became the 10th county to adopt the resolution. The effort also has the backing of the Rail Passengers Association and Transportation for America. Sen. Steve Daines has expressed support for a southern route as well, as have cities in surrounding states.
“The on-the-ground participation you’ve developed with the 10 or 11 counties along that route is absolutely critically important if we’re talking about the viability of the southern Hiawatha route,” Tester said. “Now is a bleak time for rail because they’re talking about reducing rail. It’s going to be important that we make the case for how important the Empire Builder is to the economy of Montana.”
Citing a decrease in passengers due to the pandemic, Amtrak reduced 10 long-distance routes from daily service to three days a week, including the Empire Builder, which crosses the nation’s northern tier between Chicago and Seattle – including Montana.
A monthly service report released by Amtrak in August showed ridership down 45% compared to pre-pandemic levels the year before. In 2019, Amtrak had set a new ridership record with more than 32 million passengers.
“My concern is that this reduction will become the status quo, and that’s where we’re going to be,” Tester said. “It’s important for Montana as a whole, and particularly the northern tier, to keep that train going seven days a week. It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer, the economic benefits to the state are absolutely measurable on the positive side of the ledger.”
Tester said long-distance passenger service enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, and once the pandemic passes, it could be a topic of debate. Congress has yet to take up an infrastructure bill and when it does, an investment in rail could be part of the package.
“We really do need an infrastructure bill in this country,” Tester said. “Our infrastructure is behind by about 40 years. We need to get into the 21st century here, not only with broadband but with transportation infrastructure, which would also include rail.”
During the Big Sky Passenger Rail Summit held virtually in September in Missoula, members of the Southern Rail Commission expressed support for the Montana effort.
The Big Sky authority, combined with a possible regional rail commission spanning the Pacific Northwest or Northern Rockies, could help grow the passenger rail lobby in Washington, D.C., and net more funding for passenger service.
Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said Congress could create new multi-state rail commissions, such as the Southern Rail Commission, when it reauthorizes the surface transportation bill.
The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has asked Montana’s congressional delegation to help make that possible.
“That could be a nice compliment to what we’re trying to do in state by way of the rail authority in terms of creating a cross-state collaboration that would really look at this as a regional collaboration,” Strohmaier said. “We think making our national system stronger is going to involve public investment at some point.”
The nation’s highway and interstate system enjoys public investment, Strohmaier noted, as does the airline industry.