All aboard the passenger rail 

Transportation

Gas prices, greenhouse gas emissions, senior citizens and sheer joy-riding are all reasons locals urged Missoula’s City Council May 7 to support the return of passenger rail through southern Montana. And the striped conductor hat that Mac Palmer, 75, wore to the podium to offer his encouragement just might have tipped the scales.

“On a plane you get there in a hurry but you don’t see this beautiful country of ours,” argued Palmer, director of the National Railway Historical Society’s Western Montana chapter.

In the end, Council gave unanimous backing to a resolution urging the approval of U.S. Senate Bill 294, which would appropriate five years of funding to Amtrak, including $340 million in matching grants to states like Montana for reviving a passenger rail route through southern Montana.

The route would likely wind through Missoula, Helena, Bozeman and Billings to connect with existing rail routes east of Montana. It’s the same path passenger trains followed until 1979, when federal funding cuts forced its closure. Since then, the state’s only passenger route has been the popular “Empire Builder,” which traverses Montana’s Hi-Line.

Ward 1 Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who introduced the resolution, said Missoula’s show of support was important as Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, two of 37 co-sponsors for SB 294, work to gather support for improving Amtrak.

“With soaring gas prices and concern over greenhouse gas emissions, I think it’s a very viable idea,” Strohmaier said. “And this is an opportunity for Missoula to get out in front of this issue.”

In April, Gov. Brian Schweitzer signaled his support for the southern route and met with Amtrak officials to talk details. The same night Missoula stamped its approval, Yellowstone County commissioners also passed a resolution backing the Amtrak bill.

At Missoula’s hearing, locals spoke of their hatred for airports, the potential for commuting by train to the Legislature, and reducing environmental impact as reasons for revitalizing passenger trains. But Mayor John Engen may have offered up the best rationale: “I have just one thing to say: Train seats are bigger!”
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