Billings Gazette: Passenger rail advocates gather in Billings to push for new Montana route

by Tom Lutey

Advocates for a southern Amtrak route across Montana stoked the engines Monday in Billings during a two-day conference aimed at making the short list for long-distance rail federal funding.

Government and the business representatives from across the proposed route met with federal transportation leaders and experts from other states to discuss advancing the project. At issue is restoring a passenger rail route that once connected Fargo, Bismarck, Billings, Bozeman and Missoula as it passed between Chicago and Seattle.

The route, referred to as the North Coast Hiawatha, was lost to budget cuts in the early 1980s. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which included $12 billion for passenger rail, stirred the conversational coals about the route’s return.

Although revival of long-distance rail has for decades attracted critics, the funding hasn’t been there to do so, said Amit Bose, head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

“This is the first time in decades that the Department of Transportation has been tasked with examining the potential and possible restoration and expansion of long-distance services,” Bose said. “Simply put, Congress is saying long-distance service matters in America, and it has a place in our national rail network.”

Bose said that during the first two years of the pandemic, 4.8 million people traveled by rail in the United States. Passenger travel on long-distance routes from April through June of this year total 900,000 people. Those numbers for long-distance travelers indicated that rail travel is for more than the railroad hobbyists, he said.

“Some critics like to frame long-distance routes is unnecessary and unwanted. They question who benefits from deeper investments in such services,” Bose said. “People looking to visit friends and families and loved ones benefit, as they make up more than half of all riders on long-distance routes. People looking to enjoy the freedom and ease of trains benefit, as do business travelers who want to be able to work or read on the train. Older people and individuals with disabilities benefit, as do Americans without a car or easy access to rail travel. Of course, passengers traveling long distances benefit, but so do passengers who travel to and from the many intermediate stations served by long distance routes. We do not want to miss these opportunities.”

For its part, Montana has formed the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, created by 12 county governments along the southern route to improve passenger rail service. The authority is at the center of the two-day Billings conference. It intends to depart the conference with a next step for advancing the southern route.

There have been several shovel-ready projects already launched using funding from the infrastructure law. Many of those projects are in the Northeast or South where passenger rail wasn’t eliminated 40 years ago. With little existing passenger rail to start with, the West was going to struggle to get in the queue early.

But there is an equity issue with federal passenger rail in rural areas, said John Robert Smith, Transportation for America chairman. Smith, of Mississippi, said his state and Montana were among the rural states that helped pay for the Northeast Corridor, which stretches from Washington D.C. to Boston. The discussion at the time that the corridor was built, was the others would come later.

“This was the bargain made, and we’ve seen it carried out by Republicans and Democrats since then, but that grand bargain has been broken,” Smith said.

“It was built by all of us. But now we’ve been told over decades, ‘You know, you’re one train a day just doesn’t matter to the nation. There are not enough of you out there to deserve that kind of connectivity. And we have fought for decades to sustain that national system and connectivity.’ So I want to bring the issue to you of regional equity. Is there a reason that Montanans and Mississippians don’t deserve the same kind of economic development potential that comes with passenger rail service? Is there some reason we don’t also want to be connected to other economies and our families through an additional choice of passenger rail? Isn’t there an equity issue here that somehow, we’re being treated differently?”

Other speakers discussed the way that small, rural communities were cut off by the U.S. Interstate highway system, particularly Indian Country, which interstates often avoided. Jim Matthews, CEO of the Rail Passengers Association said the return of passenger rail in southern Montana could undo some of that isolation. The shorter routes between Montana’s small communities and cities like Billings and Missoula shouldn’t be eclipsed by conversations about connecting Seattle and Chicago, he said.

“These people deserve access to the benefits of being part of the United States of America and those benefits should be shared by everyone,” Matthews said. “And we’ve seen over and over again, passenger rail creates those benefits. It’s not just about tourism, but tourism is important. It’s not just about business trips, although business trips are important. It’s about all those smaller trips that can take place on these long-distance networks.

“You should be thinking about the connectivity between those points and the trips that that enables. How many school trips does that make happen? How many ways does that allow people to access medical care here in Billings, who maybe are in places where they have no access to anything more than a tertiary care hospital? What about veterans trying to get veterans’ hospitals. These are the use cases that we have.”

Smith said it would be important to get members of Congress involved in any plans to advance passenger rail in Montana. It isn’t clear how strongly returning the Amtrak southern route is supported by Montana’s congressional delegation.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, was the only member of Montana’s congressional delegation to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, although both Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines submitted pre-recorded messages of support to the conference on restoring the route.

Montana’s only U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale didn’t address the group. All three of Montana’s congressional members are currently home on August break.

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