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Gallatin County commissioners decided Tuesday to join a regional effort to reestablish passenger rail service in southern Montana.

Twelve counties plan to participate in the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. All are likely to have officially joined the group by the end of August.

They will then each appoint a representative to the board of the authority, which will work with local, state and federal officials to reestablish the North Coast Hiawatha route. Amtrak operated the route, which passed through several cities including Billings, Bozeman, Livingston, Miles City and Missoula, from 1971 to 1979.

“Joining gives us a part of the discussion on what the authority will eventually be,” said commissioner Scott MacFarlane.

Commissioner Joe Skinner cautioned that voting to join the authority doesn’t necessarily mean the commissioners support reestablishing passenger train service in southern Montana but rather that they would like a say in what the authority does.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, but I’m going to listen,” Skinner said. “I think the old adage is: ‘If you’re not at the table, you sometimes become dinner.’ I think that is how we feel here.”

Commissioner Don Seifert said he would like to ensure the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority doesn’t benefit southern Montana at the expense of northern Montana, which has less transportation infrastructure and has the state’s only passenger rail route. He said he hopes counties in the northern part of the state join the authority, so they can have a voice in its work.

Missoula County commissioner David Strohmaier has been working to create the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority for months. He initially went to the Montana Legislature but said he found that state lawmakers weren’t supportive of the idea. He then reached out to the 24 counties through which the North Coast Hiawatha route passed or which would be part of north-south connections to Denver or Salt Lake City, to see if they were interested in forming the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.

Twelve counties — Big Horn, Broadwater, Butte-Silver Bow, Carbon, Dawson, Gallatin, Jefferson, Missoula, Park, Prairie, Sanders and Wibaux — agreed to participate. Additional counties may still join.

The authority will likely launch at a virtual summit on Sept. 17. The summit will include speeches from elected officials, business leaders and passenger rail experts. They will discuss the authority’s creation, the economic benefits of expanded passenger rail service and how local officials can work toward reestablishing passenger rail service in southern Montana.

Following the summit, the authority will likely begin studies to understand the feasibility and economics of restarting the route, Strohmaier said. The authority could also apply for federal funding and work with federal agencies on the project.

Reestablishing the route would give Montana two passenger rail lines.

“In 2020, the population and economic growth in the southern portion of the state, as well as environmental considerations, show that we can again have two routes in Montana,” Strohmaier said. “The goal of the authority is not to limit or change the existing service in northern Montana but to expand what we have.”

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority would focus on the Montana section of a broader east-west route that would connect to major cities, including Chicago and Seattle.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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