Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hail the Hiawatha

Posted on Wed, Dec 16, 2009 at 2:21 PM

The return of passenger rail service across the southern part of Montana will provide a safe, affordable and sustainable travel option across the more populous part of the state while creating beneficial jobs immediately. The vast distances between towns, combined with escalating flight and fuel costs, presents an overwhelming need for reinstating the North Coast Hiawatha route while preserving the Empire Builder.

Daily operations of the North Coast Hiawatha would create 269 permanent jobs, while improvements to the track, signals and stations along the way will create new jobs in construction, manufacturing and material supply, as well as the spillover benefits to other businesses and added tax revenue for the state.

The tremendous tourism boost must not be overlooked. This train will attract or retain millions of visitors annually to Yellowstone National Park in the summer and Montana's ski areas in the winter. What will happen to that tourism when gas prices skyrocket again?

Downtowns would greatly benefit from passenger rail. Downtown stations attract people and business in downtown instead of around towns. People can get a bite to eat, walk around and do some window-shopping, or stay overnight before catching their train. Daily train service to Montana cities will make them more attractive to business development by offering efficient transportation.

The 2009 Amtrak study of reinstating the North Coast Hiawatha Service from Chicago to Seattle through Montana estimated the initial startup cost at $1.04 billion. The majority of that cost, $620 million, is for host railroad infrastructure improvements to accommodate this train. This cost could be significantly reduced if the freight railroads, BNSF and Montana Rail Link, performed preemptive track and signaling upgrades. Any investment in this cross-country route would greatly benefit freight and commuter operations as well and reduce the North Coast Hiawatha startup costs.

Another cost of reinstating this service is acquiring 18 new locomotives and 54 bi-level coaches at a projected cost of $330 million. Why not build the new cars and engines in Montana? Amtrak needs to replace its insufficient aging fleet anyway and will be looking for an American company with that capability. That could create a lot of additional jobs in our state.

The projected annual ridership of the North Coast Hiawatha is estimated to be 360,000. If higher gas prices were figured in, that number would soar, reducing operational expenses.

The service is estimated to require a grant of $31 million a year to operate. That is a lower per-passenger cost than 12 of Amtrak's 15 current long distance trains and a bargain considering the hundreds of billions of dollars that the government spends on highways and airports annually.

The annual operational cost does not take into account the value of increased mobility for the 460,000 residents who live along the route in Montana alone or the positive economic, social and environmental benefits.

There is an immediate need for this service. Every time gas prices rise, so does the support for affordable, efficient public transportation. Implementation of the North Coast Hiawatha could take up to 60 months once funding sources are secured. We cannot wait any longer to reinstate this much-needed rail route that will create jobs, reduce pollution, bring increased mobility, boost tourism and bring affordable transportation to Montanans.

Ryan Ellis

West Glacier

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