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Gallatin County commissioners recently opted to join a budding effort to bring back passenger train service to Southern Montana. They are applauded for that. Rail passenger service could add another dimension to regional tourism – rapidly becoming the area’s largest economic driver. And it could breathe new life into rural towns that have been bleeding population as young people seek their fortunes in larger cities.

Gallatin County commissioners voted to join six other counties to create a Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. What would that do?

Southern Montana had passenger rail service for many years. But it was discontinued in 1979 as a cost-cutting measure to address Amtrak budget deficits. Since then, there have been several unsuccessful efforts to revive the service.

The creation of the authority would coordinate different efforts into a single entity that could apply for grants and lobby public and private entities to make the service a reality. The authority could lean on the state’s congressional delegation – and other members of Congress – to provide any needed funding or authorization to re-establish the rail passenger route. It could solicit the participation of private-sector entities, like Montana Rail Link, which operates on the tracks that would be used by the renewed passenger service.

Gallatin County joins Missoula, Dawson, Sanders, Park, Prairie and Broadwater counties in this campaign. Missoula County commissioners, who are spearheading the effort, are planning meetings with commissioners in other counties along the proposed route to enlist more support.

Amtrak has recently pared back on service throughout its network in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has cut into demand for all forms of travel. But this won’t last forever. And when it passes there will be a pent up demand for domestic travel opportunities.

Passenger service was terminated during an era when rail travel had fallen out of favor with many Americans. Restoration of the service would create an appealing option for travel between cities within Montana as well as connecting Montanans and tourists to and from major cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago and beyond.

Missoula County sent the resolution to join the authority to some two dozen counties that would be impacted by resuming the service. More of those counties should sign on to this effort and lend it greater credibility and a louder voice.

This is an idea worth pursuing.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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