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Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority hosts 2024 conference with guests from the Federal Railroad Administration

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority held its 2024 conference in Missoula with some notable guests from the Federal Railroad Administration
BSPRA 2024 Conference
Posted at 10:24 AM, Jun 10, 2024

MISSOULA — The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) held its 2024 conference at the Missoula Public Library on Friday, June 6.

Some notable guests from the Federal Railroad Administration were on hand to deliver some of the results they found from their much anticipated long-term study.

The proposed rail line through Montana would be the North Coast Hiawatha, beginning in Chicago and ending in Seattle.

The long-term study was one of the key steps in getting a lot of the proposed routes off the ground and into the conceptual phase. The study assessed the improvements needed along routes over 750 miles and what the rough costs may be.

It was a big picture study and the fine details of each proposed route need to be finalized in a step-based process — known as the Corridor ID process — for each rail line.

This comes in three steps. The first is to develop a scope, schedule and budget for the line. The next step will be to raise 10% of the budget from non-federal sources. Step three requires the route to raise 20% of the total budget from non-federal sources.

After all these steps, the project enters what is called the pipeline.

“The pipeline is kind of the you have finished the program, right? These are projects that are ready for, for federal investment for final design and construction and then those projects on the pipeline, get the prioritization in our fed state program and potentially other federal programs," FRA Chief of Project Planning Division Lyle Leitelt told MTN.

So where does the BSPRA’s proposed project, the North Coast Hiawatha, stand in this process?

“Right now as we speak, we are in the middle of accepting proposals from consultants engineering firms to help us throughout this process, which is probably an 18-month to a two-year long planning process,” said BSPRA chairman Dave Strohmaier.

While it is promising that the North Coast Hiawatha route has been chosen as a proposed line to be put in the pipeline, there are still some questions about the timeline in which the steps will occur between step one and step two.

MTN asked the Federal Railroad Administration officials what the timeline between these steps is regarding their administration.

“The process should be as seamless as possible as much as that can be from a Federal Administrative standpoint” Leitelt stated. “And then step two to step three there, there's going to be there, there would be a little bit more evaluation into assessing when projects are ready.”

With all of that, what is the timeline for the BSPRA hopes to have passengers in trains?

Previously in their board meeting, one board member reported that the FRA told them that they shouldn’t expect any of the projects to be operating until 2039, but Chairman Strohmaier hopes otherwise.

“We are pushing for what it would take to do this in eight years, eight to 10 years, we think 15 years or longer is way too long.”

While some major factors of this project still remain unclear like the budget and an overall timeline, the attendees at the meeting were excited about the progress that has been made so far.