Three Forks Council votes to support Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority
June 21, 2023
In November 2020, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority was formed by a joint resolution of 12 Montana counties with a mission to provide the re-establishment of safe, reliable, and sustainable passenger rail service across the southern part of the state. Since the formation, eight more counties and numerous municipalities have also supported the BSPRA, including the City of Three Forks, whose governing body voted 4-1 last week to approve a $400 contribution and to write a letter of endorsement for the organization.
At last week's Three Forks City Council meeting, Mayor Randy Johnston provided the Council with information sent by the BSPRA that said renewing a passenger rail system across southern Montana and beyond would create jobs and generate $271 million in economic benefits each year and that 2023 will be a critical year with the Federal Railroad Administration choosing routes it will recommend to Congress for renewed service.
Council members Gene Townsend, Ed Tharp, Brooke McLees, and Nancy Todd voted to approve the financial support and letter of endorsement. George Chancellor voted against the motion.
In an interview last year with the Silver State Post (Deer Lodge) and Three Forks Voice, BSPRA Chairman Dave Strohmaier said since Montana lost passenger rail service in 1979, there have been various attempts over the past four decades to try and bring it back.
While he was a member of the Missoula County Commission, Strohmaier wondered what could be done differently to restore passenger rail service. He said it had never really been "brought to bear" the force counties across Montana could have. Strohmaier found a law from the 1990s that allowed counties to unite and jointly establish a regional rail authority. In November of 2020, that is exactly what they did with 12 counties, signing a joint resolution to create the BSPRA.
Strohmaier feels things have been going remarkably well, adding they have captured people's attention nationwide, including members of Congress in what he described as the Greater Northwest Region.
He said federal transportation and railroad officials are taking notice that the BSPRA has such a diverse collation.
"These counties could not be any more dissimilar, yet it is demonstrated that we in America can still come together and agree on a few things," Strohmaier said.
As far as dealing with members of Congress, Strohmaier said it has not just been lip service. U.S. Senator Jon Tester added an amendment to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that directs the Federal Railroad Administration and USDOT to conduct a study of the discontinued former long-distance passenger rail route. This includes the former North Coast Hiawatha route that serviced southern Montana and North Dakota and the former Pioneer route from Denver to Seattle, serving Salt Lake City and Boise. According to Strohmaier, the bill also authorizes USDOT to create new rail working groups to help facilitate and provide direction to those studies.
Strohmaier said there are no significant obstacles for the first time in four decades, and they have a legislative path forward.
"I think we have the political will to do this, and we just cannot flinch at the last moment. "What we have demonstrated with the BSPRA is it is still possible to take on bold projects," he said.
Strohmaier was also adamant that the restoration of services in southern Montana would not be the demise of the Empire Builder, adding that it is a myth they want to bust. He said they would add to existing national railways, not trade one piece for another.
Looking towards the future, Strohmaier knows there will unlikely be a stop in every county, but the railroad would provide one of their only transportation options for smaller populations.
"In a large community like Bozeman or Billings, there are other opportunities to access services you might not have in a smaller community. I look back in time to how important an asset passenger rail was for a Deer Lodge and other adjoining communities," he said.
As far as an economic benefit, with higher population numbers in southern Montana, Strohmaier feels the economic impacts would rival or surpass the Empire Builder and be one of the best-delivering long-distance routes in the nation. He added it would connect not just across Montana but also to Chicago and Seattle.