Daily Montanan: Federal transportation bill holds promise for left-behind rural rail

by Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Language added in a recent markup to the U.S. Senate’s Surface Transportation Investment Act has brought some hope to passenger rail advocates in the state that long-abandoned rail service through Livingston, Helena and beyond could be on track to return.

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s amendment, passed on a bipartisan vote in June, appropriates $15 million during the course of two years for the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the restoration of regular long-distance intercity passenger rail service, with special attention paid to routes that Amtrak operated at its inception in 1971 but has since left behind. The amended bill now awaits a hearing before the full Senate.

It’s not the first time that Congress has put its weight behind efforts to restore rural rail in the U.S. – or even in Montana – but the hopes of rail supporters have been bolstered this time around by a political environment that seems to be trending toward rail investment, with money set aside for Amtrak in several infrastructure proposals making their way through the federal legislative process.

“If you look at the interstate highway system, it’s not focused merely on the most populous regions of the country,” said Dave Strohmaier, a Missoula County Commissioner and chair of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. “We’re calling for a robust national passenger rail system.

“It’s feasible and possible to do this if Congress allocates the resources to make it happen.”

For eight fitful and not particularly profitable years in the 1970s, Amtrak operated two passenger rail lines in Montana.

One, the still extant Empire Builder, connected Havre and Whitefish on a westward journey from Chicago to Seattle and Portland. To the south, operating on a parallel line through the state’s population centers and its capital city, was the North Coast Hiawatha, the product of lobbying by Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield for the newly created quasi-public passenger rail agency not to discontinue a former Northern Pacific route that had carried travelers through the region for decades.

That brief period ended in 1979, when then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams proposed to cut the line, saying that it left the government on the hook for $18 million a year and declaring that it’d be cheaper to buy all of the train’s passengers a “$170 plane ticket and two drinks” than to continue operating the Hiawatha, according to a Spokane Spokesman-Review article from that year.

Though the southern half of the state had the bulk of its residents, it also had other forms of transportation infrastructure that the Hi-Line lacked. So the decision was made to keep the Empire Builder, Strohmaier said.

The disappearance of rail service in southern Montana has left residents in a sort of transportation limbo: Travel to other cities in Montana and in the northwest requires either hundreds of miles of driving or a plane ticket.

Marty Livingston, for example, an attorney based in Bozeman, said rail travel would be the exact sort of mid-distance option she needs due to her regular trips to visit her aging father outside of Billings and ferry her daughters to lacrosse meets around the state – plus, she said she’d be able to work mid-transit.

“Tomorrow I’m already planning all my work so I can drive down and see my dad,” said Marty Livingston, an attorney born in Billings who now lives in Bozeman. “It’s 400 miles in one day.

She said she doesn’t remember ever taking the Empire Builder or the North Coast Hiawatha as a kid, but that she’s always wanted a more robust rail system in the region, especially after spending time in Europe during college and traversing whole countries by train.

“And what we do have in terms of infrastructure isn’t even that great,” she said.

Proposals to bring the Hiawatha back have come and gone; time and time again, Amtrak’s interest and admittedly limited resources have gone to other priorities, such as a glaring maintenance backlog.

But this time could be different. Tester’s amendment, part of a $25 billion total authorization for passenger rail projects in the bill – “the most significant bipartisan investment in passenger rail in history,” according to a statement from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – doesn’t call out the Hiawatha by name, but directs the Transportation Department to study the restoration of passenger service along any Amtrak routes that were discontinued or relegated to a nondaily schedule.

Other language in the amendment says the department may take into consideration how new routes would “link…large and small communities as part of a regional rail network” and advance the economic well being of rural areas. Further, U.S. DOT should work with a variety of stakeholders including states on a given route, Amtrak, private rail carriers and, among others, regional rail authorities like the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, the amendment says.

“As a farmer who is a stone’s throw away from the Empire Builder, Senator Tester knows that passenger rail is an economic boon to rural America,” Tester’s office said in a statement.

Restoring rail service to the area would carry many benefits, Strohmaier said, especially to rural economies. Plus, it would provide a more environmentally responsible form of transportation than car or airplane travel and increase transit equity, he said.

“When I hear from folks in a sparsely populated prairie county in Montana that they want to join the (BSPRA), some of the reasons given is their constituents need to travel 175 miles to catch a plane in Billings,” he said.

In 2009, Congress directed Amtrak to study the feasibility of restoring North Coast Hiawatha Service. That report projected the line would have higher-than-average ridership for a 2,200-mile long-distance route and would recoup 58% of direct operating costs at the fare box, an above average rate.

However, the front-end capital investment needs were steep and would mostly fall to the state, which would need to subsidize the line to the tune of $244 million over 20 years, according to the study. Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari called the figures from the 2009 study “obsolete,” saying one objective of the new language in S.2016, the Surface Transportation Investment Act, is to come up with a more accurate cost projection. Prices may have changed in part because of freight infrastructure development that came with the Bakken oil boom, he said.

“What would need to happen before you see passenger trains rolling down these tracks is additional double tracking and additional sidings that would allow for the free movement of both freight and passenger trains without either significantly impeding each other,” Strohmaier said. “That’s always been the concern of the freight rail operators. However, some of those infrastructure needs that were identified over a decade ago have already been completed.”

Carol Strizich, MDT’s Rail, Transit and Planning Bureau Chief, said the department was excited by the prospect of restoring Hiawatha service but acknowledged that it would require significant state investment. MDT’s main focus was protecting the Empire Builder, she siad.

“As a state agency it is important that new service doesn’t compromise the existing service of the Empire Builder which provides much needed service and contributions to the economy in the Northern part of the state,” she said.

The heavy financial burden on an individual state is the result of a funding scenario for state-sponsored Amtrak routes set up in 2008 legislation, Magliari said.

New line starts aren’t rare for the agency, he said, but they tend to work better in states that have a history of supporting regional rail themselves.

“There’s not a history of state-sponsored rail in Montana,” he said.

However, Magliari said that Amtrak is looking for ways to lower the barrier to interstate rail. For example, the authority’s fiscal year 2022 grant request to Congress includes a proposal for boosting federal funding for new routes over the first five years, alleviating a significant capital burden on the states.

“Right now, states are required to pony up 85%,” he said.

Under the proposal, Amtrak could cover up to 100% of the initial capital investment and some operating costs over the first five years of a state-supported route’s life, he said.

The possibility for investment in the North Coast Hiawatha comes as the policy discussion around passenger rail is shifting. President Joe Biden never hesitates to flaunt his credentials as a regular Amtrak customer, and the potential for billions of dollars across various infrastructure and transportation proposals holds promise.

Language in those bills encouraging the development of rural intercity rail shows that changing conversation, said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president for policy and government affairs with the Rail Passengers Association.

“It’s not just about minimizing subsidies but maximizing the benefits you bring to disparate cross sections of American towns,” he said.

But service to southern Montana may not be high on the list of Amtrak’s priorities, he said.

“Right now, the needs of northeast corridor are so great,” he said. “You have some certain key short distance corridors that can easily suck up most of the funding.”

To actually ensure that visions for restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha and other rural rail lines come to fruition, Jeans-Gail said there needs to be substantial, dedicated funding for expanding rural rail. That will demonstrate whether the recent interest in Amtrak expansion is a seismic shift or just an oscillation in the sine waves of political opinion, he said.

“We won’t know until we see the final version of the bill,” he said.