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Montana Coalition Wants to Revive Passenger Rail

Supporters of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority argue that a new train could spur economic development and provide a valuable service for the state's non-driving residents.
April 15, 2021, 7am PDT | Diana Ionescu | @aworkoffiction
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Historic Train Depot
Virginia City, Montana

A statewide coalition is "working to revive passenger rail in southern Montana," reports Surya Milner for High Country News. If completed, "the line would span 600 miles and connect the state’s residents, including elderly, disabled and non-mobile people, to doctor’s appointments, shopping centers and one another."

The project is aimed at providing an accessible mode of transportation for the state's residents, many of whom don't have access to private vehicles. The coalition, named the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, "was the brainchild of Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. In 2020, Strohmaier rallied support from a dozen urban and rural counties, passed a joint resolution among county commissions to create the authority, and began meeting with Amtrak and Montana’s congressional representatives to discuss funding and infrastructure. Strohmaier wants to revive the rail line that ran from Chicago through southern Montana to Seattle from 1971 to 1979." Supporters of the proposed rail line argue that better passenger rail could be "an engine of equity across a politically and economically divided state." A train, they claim, could present a "significant opportunity to provide enhanced transportation" for the state's residents as well as "an opportunity for business expansion or development." Currently, close to 20% of Montana residents don't have a driver's license.

The project isn't without its detractors. "Local hesitation, coupled with a state Legislature that’s been slow to pursue public transportation, makes for a tough battle." But "the coalition is optimistic that the Biden administration’s commitment to building out transportation infrastructure nationwide is a harbinger of expanded transit across the state," and that "the stars have aligned politically to make something big happen" when it comes to reviving passenger rail.

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Published on Monday, April 5, 2021 in High Country News
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