“In the past we never had a rail authority, so we would always go hat in hand to the legislature and ask for letters or resolutions in support of passenger rail. Well, that’s behind us,” said Strohmaier.
The Montana legislature never supported the restoration of the Hiawatha because some lawmakers fear passenger trains would disrupt freight trains.
“You get the feeling that passenger rail is somehow the opposite of freight rail. Due to the fact that BNSF – Freight Rail – is at the table, I think we’re about to bust myths. What some thought was impossible is possible and offers an opportunity to see mutual benefits and synergies between freight and passenger transport,” said Strohmaier.
Naysayers still question the cost of restoring the Hiawatha. They often come up with a 2009 Amtrak feasibility study that estimates that restoring Chicago to Seattle would cost about a billion dollars.
Rail Authority partners knew they needed to update these numbers. For one, BNSF has made a number of upgrades to the rails since 2009. The region has also seen an increase in the number of potential passengers whose ticket purchases could cover the costs.
A study published in September 2021 concluded that the Hiawatha Amtrak would cost $68 million per year to operate while ticketing and other revenue from up to 426,000 passengers would total $41 million. According to the study, Amtrak would need to budget for purchases of rights of way and track and signal upgrades that would cost $795 million over five years.
While that doesn’t sound like a good deal for Amtrak, the study found that it was a very good deal for the states. The passenger line would bring annual economic benefits of $271 million to the states and counties it serves — including reduced road construction and maintenance.
Coinciding with the election of Joe Biden as President in November 2020, the Big Sky Rail Authority could not have come together at a better time.
In April 2021, Biden celebrated Amtrak’s 50th anniversary call up Congress is investing $80 billion in rail modernizations, including reducing Amtrak’s maintenance backlog, improving rail corridors, and providing grants for better rail efficiency.
Aware of the fledgling Big Sky Rail Authority, Montana Senator Jon Tester, along with Senator John Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, inserted language into the bipartisan infrastructure bill directing the US Department of Transportation to restore transcontinental passenger routes investigate and approved $15 million for the work.
After Biden signed the bill into law in November 2021, Strohmaier became lobbying Montana Congressional delegation in Washington, DC to ensure that the North Coast Hiawatha is one of the long-distance lines included in the study.
The Federal Railroad Administration is poised to begin this study in late August. Specifically, FRA Administrator Amit Bose chose to launch the study on August 22 during the Greater Northwest Passenger Rail Summit in accounts. Then, over the following 18 months, the consultants will assess the pros and cons of restoring daily service to 10 long-distance connections that have been dropped stretchincluding the Hiawatha.
“This summit will not be an ordinary conference. We’re very focused on how it can be an integral part of public engagement with the study,” Strohmaier said. “I don’t remember the last time we had such a high-level delegation of federal officials who are going to join us on something related to passenger rail.”
Meanwhile, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority will work with the Montana Department of Transportation to rewrite the Montana rail plan. The Federal Railroad Administration study will consider state railroad plans, so the more the Montana plan emphasizes the Hiawatha line, the better for line restoration advocates. Wyoming just updated its railroad plan and South Dakota is in the design process. Both mention the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority and its goals, Strohmaier said.
“If the legislature can play a role, it helps emphasize to DOT that this needs to be a priority,” Strohmaier said. “My hope would be, meteoric as our rise as a railway authority has been, that we will be able to ensure that this is the time to strike.”
Though well timed in its inception, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority has not a moment to lose. By the time the Federal Railroad Authority completes its study, even if North Coast Hiawatha is given top priority, only two to three years of Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill funding will remain. Added to this is the uncertainty caused by the presidential elections in 2024.
“Once the recommendations are in place, I think we have a good chance of getting the restoration project up and running, even within the five-year time horizon,” said Strohmaier. “We basically have a two-year window to get on a glide path to project implementation because all bets are off with another administration in the White House. We now have a chance that we never had in the past.”
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