MT Standard: Up and over: Tram to Our Lady of the Rockies gets huge boost with OK to cross I-15

by Mike Smith

It’s been said for more than three decades: The Lady needs a tram.

Now, with a crucial nod from state and federal highway officials, she’s much closer to getting one.

After several years of talks and analysis, meetings with local backers and countless back-and-forth emails, the Federal Highway Administration and Montana Department of Transportation have agreed to let an aerial tram from the east edge of Butte cross over Interstate 15 on its way to Our Lady of the Rockies overlooking the Summit Valley.

There’s a giant challenge remaining – raising millions of dollars to fund the project – but serious efforts toward that can now begin.

Without permission to cross over the interstate, which became official Wednesday, it was virtually impossible to get fundraising off the ground.

“We had a big hurdle to get over. We’re finally over it,” said Chad Harrington, who’s on the Our Lady of the Rockies board steering the project. “Now we can work towards the reality of having a tram.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester facilitated meetings between the board and federal and state transportation officials that led to aerial, right-of-way clearance needed to build the tram. Those meetings began in earnest in 2017.

“With this hurdle crossed, fundraising and construction can finally kick into gear, helping the Lady shine brighter as more folks from around the world can come to Butte and see the beauty that she, and the city, have to offer,” the Montana Democrat said.

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It could take $10 million to $12 million to fund the project, board members say, but they and others believe it’s doable, especially in Butte. There were naysayers about the Lady herself, but the 90-foot statue has been lighting the night sky at 8,510 feet since 1985.

The Sisters of Charity had already agreed to donate 10 acres just north of Skyline Park for a tram facility, reception hall and gift shop, and there are detailed designs for them. Backers got prior approval from Burlington Northern to cross over abandoned railroad tracks.

They must circle back to ensure that permission is still valid, and meet conditions for local planning and zoning approval, but the “up and over” authorization was the true linchpin.

“This is going to be great for the whole city,” said Mike Cerise, a longtime board member who helped bulldoze the road to the base a few years before the Lady was placed there in sections by helicopters in late 1985.

Gov. Greg Gianforte agrees.

“A tram to Our Lady of the Rockies will attract visitors across the state, country, and world and help drive economic development in Butte-Silver Bow,” the governor said Thursday. “The right-of-way authorization over I-15 is an important step as the local community explores this exciting opportunity.”

Copper King William A. Clark established the Gardens in 1899 for the miners and city that helped feed his fortune. The park grew to 68 acres and entertained countless people before its closure in the 1970s.

The tram project dates back to the 1990s, when Cerise, Bob Leipheimer, Jim Lynch and others started working on it. Ray Ueland helped raise money for the Lady herself and has been on the board for seven years now. All are thrilled about the big development.

So is Stephanie Sorini, executive director of the Butte Chamber of Commerce and a member of the nonprofit Our Lady of the Rockies board. She says a tram will be “huge” for Butte.

People from all over the world want to know about the Lady, she said, and many travel through Butte on their way to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. A tram will be one more reason – and a big one – to stop and stay awhile.

Unlike long and winding bus trips that take visitors to the Lady during summer months, a tram would get them up in 10 to 12 minutes and could operate most months of the year.

“This is going to put us on the map and we are going to be so busy,” Sorini said. “It offers quality of life. We are constantly doing things to make Butte a better place to live, work and play … and this is what our community needs.”

There is a commuter tram in Portland that passes over Interstate 5 on its way to Oregon Health and Science University that was jointly funded by the college, city and some property owners. But it is owned by the city government and is part of its public transit network.

Harrington said if they raise the money to make it happen, Butte’s would be the first privately owned and operated tram crossing an interstate. That’s a big reason authorization took so long.

“It wasn’t anything that the Lady of the Rockies did wrong or the state has done wrong or the feds have done wrong,” he said. “It’s just uncharted territory and nobody knew how to get it to this point.”

Board members have sought permission for several years, but progress ramped up two years ago when they took federal and state officials to the Lady herself. Backers had pitched the tram as not just a Butte project but a Montana project, and things changed that day.

“They’ve driven past it forever but when they got up there and saw the beauty of it and saw the potential of this tram, I think they kind of changed their tune to be in favor of promoting this project,” Harrington said.

It was Ueland’s idea to have the meeting at 8,510 feet above sea level and 3,000 feet above Butte. The agencies have been good to work with, he said, but there was a pattern of “put that off, put that off.”

“From that point on,” Ueland said, “they were very tuned in to working with us.

After the long, winding bus ride to the top, Cerise said, they realized a tram trip would get more people to the top more safely.

State and federal agency officials had lots of concerns and questions, board members said, many related to safety.

To minimize distractions to passing motorists below, for example, the tram cars cannot have any outside lighting or outside signage. Bicycles will be allowed inside the tram but not outside. Neither will ski racks or anything else.

“We can’t even have open windows because somebody could throw something outside,” Leipheimer said.

If fundraising is successful, Leipheimer said it’s likely that many of the plans and concepts laid out in 2015 will be in play.

Under those, the tram cars would accommodate 15 to 18 people but they would first get on gondolas from inside the tram building. They would travel roughly parallel to the interstate to a transfer station, where they would board one of two tram cars.

The trams would start at an elevation of about 5,900 feet, cross over the interstate, and over 10 to 12 minutes, climb to just over 8,000 feet where the Lady is located, then reverse back down.

The group has been discussing its plans with Doppelmayr USA Inc., which has built trams and ski lifts across the globe, including the one at Big Sky.

There could be changes to those plans based on newer tram technology and factors to make the operation the best and safest possible.

Numerous others have pushed the project along over the years, including veteran Butte legislator Jim Keane and Dave Palmer, a longtime Lady board member who also met with agency officials when he was Butte-Silver Bow’s chief executive from 2017 to late 2020.

Keane, a Democrat in the Legislature since 2001, said the right-of-way matter alone took a long time to nail down.

“In the early part the state was blaming the feds and the feds were saying, ‘We can’t do it,’ and it took a couple of years to get everyone to the table,” he said. “It took time to get to the reasonable agreement. Everyone worked hard together and the Lady of the Rockies stuck with it and we stuck with it and got it done.”

Palmer noted that a tram has been talked about ever since the Lady was completed in December 1985.

“Now they can start raising money and I think that’s doable,” he said. “I think it’s good news for everyone and I think it will pull a lot of people off the interstate.”

J.P. Gallagher, who became chief executive this year, said the community’s “can do” spirit and tenacity have overcome years of roadblocks. The right-of-way lease was the biggest obstacle to moving forward, he said.

“With that hurdle cleared, it now gives a path for the community to try and secure funds to pay for the tram,” Gallagher said. “It will be a goal of my administration to help in this fundraising effort.”

“It is great to see this project will progress, bring new jobs to the community, and attract more Montanans and visitors to see the beauty of Our Lady,” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said. “I look forward to seeing the tram project continue and supporting the board, especially those who never lost faith and achieved this success.”

Tester said a tram would provide a big boost to the local economy and increase access to mountain biking and hiking on adjacent public land. It would also allow more people to see up close what folks in Butte see every day.

“Our Lady of the Rockies is a shining beacon representing so much to the people of Butte, as well as anyone who has ever come to the Richest Hill and seen her looking over the city,” Tester said.

Backers will now go after private and public dollars to fund the project, and it might be a good time on the latter front because of recent big spending bills passed and pending in Congress. But they won’t be picky.

“We’re ready if somebody’s got some checks,” Harrington said.