Passenger Rail Line Eyed for Southern Montana

By Beacon Staff

BOZEMAN – Reviving a passenger rail route that used to run between Glendive and Missoula drew crowds of supporters to a town hall meeting in Bozeman.

Tuesday’s meeting was organized by Sen. Jon Tester, who last year ensured Montana’s inclusion in a national study looking at passenger rail lines.

That study, mandated by Congress, is looking at how to use $1.3 billion in federal money to improve Amtrak service, and potentially reopen the North Coast Hiawatha passenger line that once ran from St. Paul, Minn., through Montana and onto Seattle.

Montana’s infrastructure and projections for ridership and revenue are being assessed, said Ray Lang, director of government affairs for Amtrak, which operates a 21,100-mile system.

Meanwhile, the state Transportation Department is also studying several possible routes in Montana, including the Hiawatha line, which shut down in 1979. The route ran through Glendive, Miles City, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula and farther west.

“It really makes sense to put all our options on the table,” Tester told the more than 200 people at the meeting. “As with everything, restoring the Hiawatha comes with a cost. This study will put a price tag on restoring the Hiawatha.”

Currently, Amtrak’s Empire Builder, running through the north of the state, is the only passenger line operating in Montana.

Volatile gas prices have recently renewed interest in passenger trains, and $8 billion in federal stimulus spending has been tagged for building high-speed rails across the nation. At the state level, planners are also beginning to look at options besides building roads.

“If we can make an investment in rail transportation that will lessen the impact on highways, that is an investment worth making,” said Jim Lynch, chief of the Montana Department of Transportation.

The state study may be released for public comment by June 17, and the national Amtrak studies are slated for completion in October.

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