Looking beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, county leaders from across the state are gearing up for detailed discussions next week on how to bring passenger rail service back to Southern Montana.
The Passenger Rail Summit was originally being planned for last spring, as Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier and his colleagues spent time last winter advancing discussions last year.
“COVID threw a little bit of a wrench into the works here. We had originally assumed that this happened back in April and that the summit would help build momentum and conversation among counties to get this over the finish line," Strohmaier said.
That progress has been steady throughout the summer as Missoula, and several other counties, passed resolutions supporting the formation of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.
The goal is to bring passenger rail back to the "Southern Route", where Amtrak stopped running more than 40 years ago.
Several counties have either passed joint resolutions or are participating and since only two are needed under Montana law, it appears the idea has left the station.
“We've crossed the finish line and so we will go into the summit not wondering if or probably even when, but being able to actually introduce the rail authority to folks who are participating in that event," Strohmaier said.
You might think the drive to restore passenger rail is of primary interest for Missoula and Montana's more populated counties. But Strohmaier says actually, much of the momentum is coming from the smaller counties.
“But they see this as an opportunity for economic development that will help them diversify their economies and provide services to their community," Strohmaier told MTN News. "So it's definitely not just an urban thing. It's urban and rural, across the 630 miles that span the State of Montana.
The Passenger Rail Summit will be held virtually on Sept. 17 from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.