Our first Train Time podcast outside the Northeast takes us to Big Sky country. We spoke to David Strohmaier, chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, about efforts to restore passenger rail service restored through the southern tier of Montana. He is also chair of the newly formed Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, which was featured recently in the New York Times (link below). This Authority is a legal entity formed by a coalition of counties, and will be working to develop plans and raise support in the region and in Washington DC.
Strohmaier explains that when Hiawatha service was stopped in 1979, the Empire Builder service that goes from Chicago to Seattle through the North Tier of Montana was maintained. The choice was based on preserving public transportation in the more remote part of the state, even though that came at the expense of the cities and towns along the Southern Tier. Strohmaier emphasized a point that we often make: passenger rail restoration is not a zero-sum game, pitting one project against another. Our aim should be to focus on creating networks, east-west and north-south connections. He sees future potential in passenger rail restoration on other lines that, like the Housatonic Line and North Tier Line in Massachusetts, used to have passenger trains and now have only freight.
Strohmaier and his colleagues want to see studies focus on the value passenger rail creates, and on the equity that good public transportation provides. He also explains that the counties that are part of the Authority range from blue/purple politically to various shades of red. They have found common purpose in this initiative to benefit the entire region. It’s 600 miles across Montana, and the restored line would go through a county with a population of only 1,000 as well as three of the biggest cities in Montana, including the state capital, Helena.
Dave Strohmaier has called Missoula home since 1997. He currently serves as chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners and he also chairs the Missoula Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Coordinating Committee. From 2006 to 2013, Dave represented Ward 1 on the Missoula City Council. Prior to his time in elected office, Dave spent 18 years with the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service in a variety of roles. He also spent 13 years in the private sector as a public historian with Historical Research Associates, Inc., where he specialized in environmental and Native American history.
Note: This transcript was created using AI and will be edited for readability. (THIS EDITING HAS NOT YET BEEN DONE YET!) The AI transcript is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but the time-stamps are not a perfect match to the podcast because we’ve added an introduction and did some editing.
Karen Christensen, Dave Strohmaier
Karen Christensen 00:55
Dave. Hello. It’s just great to have you with us from the great state of Montana. What’s the weather like out there?
It is hovering around freezing today. But we do have snow on the ground and it’s still feeling like winter.
Karen Christensen 01:12
Ah, yes, I’m in Massachusetts.
This is really exciting, both because of what you’re doing, and because this is the first Train Time podcast where we’ve really got gone outside the Northeast region, and away from the East Coast, way out west. So it’s been an education for me, I’ve been looking at maps and I’m counting on you to educate me more about Montana and exactly what you see passenger rail as bringing to your state.
Dave Strohmaier 01:45
I am happy to be here to do exactly that.
Karen Christensen 01:47
So tell me how did this all get started? How did you get involved? I gather that you’re one of the leaders in this the effort in Montana, and tell us a bit about yourself, please.
Dave Strohmaier 02:00
Yeah, so I currently serve as the chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, a role that I’ve been in for about a little over four years now. I previously beginning in the mid-2000s, served on the Missoula City Council. And it was at that time that in contact with some of my constituents that I became interested in the possibility of restoring passenger rail service to the southern tier of the state of Montana. Now, in Montana, we actually had multiple long distance rail routes, passenger rail routes up until 1979. And in 1979, during a period of retrenchment by Amtrak, the Empire Builder along the what’s called the Highline in Montana, the northern tier of the state, adjoining Canada, the Empire Builder was retained, but what was called the North Coast Hiawatha route along the southern portion, and actually the most populous portion of Montana was dropped. It was a bit of a tradeoff and that it was seen as if we were only to have one passenger rail route in the state of Montana, it ought to serve those communities that are most disadvantaged in terms of having air or other decent modes of public transportation. So we’ve been without passenger rail service in my neck of the woods for basically 42 years. Over that time for him, there have been various fits and starts of trying to restore service but it’s typically oscillated between moments of enthusiasm led by passionate advocates or advocacy groups and even longer periods of what I would call the wet blanket syndrome where folks had their hopes dashed. So fast forward to where we are today, we’re trying something different and hopefully more successful than those decades long, unsuccessful efforts.
Karen Christensen 04:08
Tell us about Montana. I think that a lot of my listeners, although obviously they’re training advocates, and people pass Pat passionate about rail across the country. I don’t know Montana, can you describe it and the cities there I’ve been looking at a map give us a sense of who lives there and why passenger rail would be such a boon to them.
Dave Strohmaier 03:54
The state of Montana exists in the run at the juncture of the Rocky Mountains, the Northern Rockies and the Great Plains region. The western part of the state is fairly mountainous. We are home to both Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks couple of our most iconic national treasures. And the state is big geographically, which is why it’s called Big Sky Country and which is also the moniker for our newly minted Rail Authority, which we’ll probably talk about here and
Karen Christensen 04:33
Dave Strohmaier 04:34
but it’s a big state. It’s stretches 600 miles from east to west. We’re bordered on the east by North Dakota on the west by Idaho and to the south by Wyoming. We’re fairly sparsely populated. As larger geographic region as we are we have about a million people. We only have one congressional district. That might change after this last census. But we actually have the largest congressional district in the country
Karen Christensen 05:09
to congressional this 600 miles.
Dave Strohmaier 05:12
Yeah, large geographic area, large population with one representative. So we feel somewhat disproportionately underrepresented in Congress. But nonetheless, we press on in terms of, of the population centers in the state, as I mentioned, the majority of Montana’s population spread out across cities such as Billings, Bozeman Missoula lie in the southern tier of the state. We have no passenger rail service, we have air service, we have interstate highways. But this is a mode of transportation that we think would benefit our state and region greatly, and is currently completely lacking in our transportation portfolio. But you
Karen Christensen 06:01
but you have an existing freight line,
Dave Strohmaier 06:04
we do we have an existing freight line. In fact, it is the is the same, same corridor that was served by passenger rail service up until 1979. So we’re not contemplating anything like creating a completely new system that has never existed before. And in fact, we’re not just looking at what it would take to recreate this East West connection across our state. But also, what does it mean to add some north south connectivity in the western United States, bringing passenger rail from Denver up to Billings, Montana independence, from Salt Lake City, in theory, up to Butte, Montana, and then on to Seattle.
Karen Christensen 06:54
So you’re taking this kind of systems approach, which we’re taking in New England. And also this is what’s really interesting is that you’re looking for the sort of simpler and less expensive solution than a high speed rail line between major cities, but you’re looking to connect to use existing infrastructure, in fact, to improve it, so that we can have passenger rail as well as freight trains on lines that that exist.
Dave Strohmaier 07:26
Absolutely. And it’s not to say that there would not need to be infrastructure investments on these corridors that are currently just being used by freight. railroad operators. But it is to say that we think that investing in not high speed but higher speed, passenger rail service would be a much better investment and provide connectivity and a level of transportation equity for our population, that would not be realized if we simply dumped vast sums of money into high speed rail as, as maybe as important as that might mean to some of the country.
Karen Christensen 08:13
Yeah, well, we’re looking at this in a very similar way, in many, in many cases, here further, further east. So I, what I hadn’t gathered from the New York Times article was that you’re also thinking about this, you know, the more the systems, the rail system for the region, which I think is really timely. Are there other? Is there a freight network running along those lines you just mentioned?
Dave Strohmaier 08:45
Yes, all of the potential alignments or corridors, not just east west, but also the north south connections currently are served by frayed So again, it’s not so much a matter of recreating something that’s never existed or completely running a line through a green field that would require right of way acquisition and streaming something from whole cloth. It’s building upon the rail system that we’ve already had, and currently are utilizing.
Karen Christensen 09:23
Tell us please about the Big Sky passenger rail authority. It’s called I was really intrigued to read about the fact that you could establish that counties could establish an authority.
Dave Strohmaier 09:35
Yes, as we’re we when we stumbled upon this piece of state statute that had not been used since the 1990s, when it was originally adopted by our state legislature. So going back to the attempts, the really failed attempts over the past four decades to reestablish passenger rail service in our state and seeing what has been Not worked. Again. And again, I’ve come to the conclusion. And I came to the conclusion when I started as a county commissioner A number of years ago that we’re just not getting anywhere trying the same thing ever harder, expecting different results is not getting the job done. And in fact, isolated communities, cities, towns, municipalities, passing resolutions to affirm their supportive passenger rail, and this kind of siloed fashion, also is not getting the job done. So in looking at the map of our state, it’s a bit of a no brainer. But it occurred to me that the one thing that is continuous across the entire state are counties. Is there a mechanism in state law that would allow counties to come together and create some sort of a special district that would further our goals. And so that’s what we did one of our students, Deputy county attorney’s found along the books, that allows counties and only counties in the state of Montana to jointly come together to establish Regional Rail authorities. And so over the course of the year 2020, we did a full court press here in Montana, trying to reach out to those counties that either were one served by passenger rail and might be candidates to have it restored, or counties in which just looking into the future passenger rail service restoration. And creation would make sense. So in November of last year, 12 counties came together, and an executed a joint resolution to establish what we’re calling the Big Sky passenger rail authority, the first such authority in the history of the state of Montana, that that literally does span the entire 600 mile breadth of the state, and represents not only urban population centers, but also some of our most isolated and extremely sparsely populated portions of the state.
Karen Christensen 12:15
And what do you all want to see happen? What’s the vision?
Dave Strohmaier 12:21
So one of the organizing concepts for the rail authority is that we are now that that governance structure that institutional infrastructure that was totally lacking in prior decades when you just have advocates or nonprofit groups, working towards this goal of restored service. So we now by virtue of having the authority established and we are a bonafide arm of state government, governmental entity, we have the ability to directly engage in, in negotiations with or discussions with our host railroads, with Amtrak, with our congressional delegation, our state government state d o t. And we have the ability to seek funding, we have the ability to accept funding to deploy for a project to conduct the necessary studies and analyses. So we’re filling a void that has not existed. We’ve got a lot of work to do before we see a train passenger train rolling down the tracks, but it’s all about setting ourselves up for success. Whereas otherwise, if opportunities were to materialize, if a multi trillion dollar infrastructure bill was to come out of this administration and Congress in the past, we would have just been completely unprepared to engage in that process. Now we’ve got the structure in place to take an active role.
Karen Christensen 14:04
Who owns the line, the southern cheer line in Montana.
Dave Strohmaier 14:09
So we have three host railroads. Burlington, Northern Santa Fe is the owner of the East West rail line through the state. About half of the state is under a long term lease between Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Montana Rail Link. And then if you look south, at least one of the corridors that we’re looking at is owned by Union Pacific. Uh huh.
Karen Christensen 14:38
And what do you think that next step is into in terms of assessing I saw that there was an estimate made of 50 million to upgrade the line for passenger service, but is that is that just a ballpark figure? Do you need to do more to assess exactly what is required?
Dave Strohmaier 14:58
The short answer is Slowly, yes, more assessment work needs to be done. About a decade ago in 2009, Amtrak conducted a feasibility study of restoring the north coast Hiawatha route to the southern tier of the state. And, and even at the time, there were many of us who thought that this by all rights appeared to be an attempt by the host freight railroads to bankroll the complete reconstruction of their lives.
Karen Christensen 15:30
Dave Strohmaier 15:34
That the cost estimate came back at and we’re talking not just within Montana, but basically from Chicago to Seattle and Portland. The cost estimate came back on the order of magnitude of about a billion dollars and, and the B word, instituted one of those proverbial wet blankets that got tossed on the effort at the time. So over a decade is a lapse, some of the suggested infrastructure improvements back in 2009, have already been completed by the host railroads to support their freight operations. And I would also argue that we certainly can bring more creativity and ingenuity to how to structure a system that works for us without completely breaking the bank. And that’s what we need. Now, you’re hoping to have daily service? Yeah, we are hoping to have daily service. And I should also say, here in Montana, where we have the Empire Builder, which connects Chicago to Seattle, and Portland through Montana. It’s been scaled back during the pandemic, and we are strong advocates of restoring full seven day a week service to that. And in everything that we say and do is the authority, we want to make clear that we are not proposing any sort of zero sum game by which adding service to our region would somehow diminish your takeaway service and another part of Montana or LA is all about being additive and adding conductivity to the overall system, which we’d argue makes the overall system more robust and vital.
Karen Christensen 17:24
Yeah, I think we have cases in the East where people want to see one line is competing with another, which is not the right way to look at it, because it is a system. Now what condition I’m, I’m really into the engineering of this, I’m, I want to see your line, as soon as I can. I’m obviously going to be out there sort of walking the track. But what kind of condition is that line? In as a freight line? Do you know how old it is? I’m asking because we have a line that’s 37 miles long, that’s being restored to passenger level. And it’s costing about a million dollars a mile to do that here in Massachusetts. But that’s very, it’s very old, it’s 100 years old. Yeah, we would not be looking at that. If so we would probably be in the wet blanket scenario, again, with over 600 miles of Route in Montana. And, and at a million dollars a mile, we’re talking that half a billion dollars just within our state, no, the line is in good shape. Some of the upgrades that would need to be made, would be adding additional double tracking or sightings in some areas. Just to avoid any conflict between the operation and passenger trains, we would probably have to add back in some of the super elevation, if you will, and then that’s kind of a fancy term for the way in which a rail line would bank around a corner to allow for higher speeds. Yeah, yeah. And that and those were removed after passenger rail was, was abandoned in our southern part of the state just decrease maintenance costs for the frayed rail roads.
Dave Strohmaier 19:18
We’d have to put back into service some of the stations that have well, all of the stations that have not been used over the last four decades, I saw a
Karen Christensen 19:27
photograph of a gorgeous station in Missoula in
Dave Strohmaier 19:31
Yeah, there’s some beautiful facilities and again, it’s a matter of thinking creatively and how do we, how do local communities perhaps have skin in the game and one way in which they would is by taking on the responsibility of the station Reestablishment. But, in general, we’re talking a pretty solid network of rail lines in the state of Montana, and even For those portions of the line that would exit the state and add connectivity, two points east and west end points north and south.
Karen Christensen 20:07
Where do people in Montana where are you likely to be going or where are people coming from?
Dave Strohmaier 20:13
So here in Montana, and there’s a number of potential classes of riders, if you will, that we expect. And we can look to the Empire Builder in Montana for somewhat of an analogy or analog to what we’d be looking at for areas where service would be restored. So the Empire Builder along the northern tier of the state provides both connectivity for tourists. We have one of those iconic national parks in the country, Glacier National Park, through which you can access the park by the Empire Builder
Karen Christensen 20:54
is that my daughter worked in Glacier National Park one summer, but she flew somewhere in Idaho, I had no idea that the train
Dave Strohmaier 21:04
can disembark or board the train on either the Eastern or Western edges of or southern edge of Glacier National Park via the Empire, an Empire Builder. So you’ve got you’ve got that clientele, you’ve also you also have those individuals who are residents of the communities who are serviced by the rail line who either choose not to or really don’t have any other way to travel by rail. So that would be folded into the equation here. And on that point, that there’s a there’s a bit of, of transportation equity at play, in that I’ve heard from folks across the state who are part of the disabled community who can drive really cannot easily fly, but would absolutely take a train. From the business sector. I’ve heard from CEOs of companies here in the southern tier of Montana, who desperately want to be able to take a train to their other office locations and have productive time, work time while traveling, which you cannot say so much. If you’re behind the wheel of a vehicle, or are here in Montana, if you’re wanting to access another community in the state via air, you have to fly outside of the state of Montana, to a Denver or Salt Lake City or Seattle or Portland, only to then fly back to the state to your destination. So it’s crazy.
Karen Christensen 22:40
I need to put some maps up with when we put this podcast online, we’ll put up some maps so we can for those of us who are unfamiliar with the challenges of the West, it’s just different from you know, being in the kind of rather crowded northeast. So what are you looking forward to? What do you what happens next, I’m going to make sure that the website is available, you know, the link is there so people can read more about it and stay in touch. But what happens next, what should we be looking forward to from the authority
Dave Strohmaier 23:14
moving forward? It’s a multi-pronged effort that the authority is taking. So usually, when I get questions about how is this going to be possible? Well, first off, if the question is, what’s the likelihood that restored passenger rail service will occur? My response is absolutely zero if we don’t do anything differently than we have in the past. But beyond that, usually the next question is, how much is it going to cost? And that’s where we will be working with our members of Congress or US senators, and other partners to try to initiate through the next surface transportation bill in Congress, a new study of restored service through our state and throughout the entire region. But beyond just cost, what and the question of what, from an engineering standpoint, would it take to make this happen? What usually does not get addressed is what are the benefits? Not just the cost, but what are the social and economic benefits of passenger rail or restored rail service?
Karen Christensen 24:25
And those don’t tend to get put into the financial equation and we to deal with this?
Dave Strohmaier 24:34
And it’s because yeah, absolutely. And it’s because of that, that one of the first undertakings of the Big Sky passenger rail authority will be to garner the funds to do a socio economic study and to answer that very question. And again, we have a great analog by way of the Empire Builder where it’s been estimated by the rail passengers Association. That for the entire Breath of the builders route between Chicago and Seattle and Portland that Garner’s over $300 million in economic benefits to those states collectively. And that’s, that’s a great return on investment when you consider that the federal government puts in about $57 million per year. And so it’s that question of economic and social benefits that we want to put a lot of effort into, to continue to make the case to not only our constituents here in the state, but to our national and federal leaders that this makes a lot of sense. And as a great investment for our nation.
Karen Christensen 25:46
This, this is something we’ll follow closely, we have many, many parallels with what we’re dealing with in other parts of the country. And I’m looking forward to talking to you again, but my plan is to do it in person, because I want to get out there and see this for myself.
Karen Christensen 26:05
So I will, I will take the train somewhere. And look forward to seeing this. I really congratulate you on what you’re doing. And thank you for joining us on train time.
Dave Strohmaier 26:21
Thank you for having me. All aboard Montana.
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