Big-ticket punch 

Any momentum to restore the Amtrak route that once rolled through Montana's southern tier ran into a billion-dollar brick wall last week. Nevertheless, train advocates insist the idea isn't derailed.

In its feasibility study released Friday, Amtrak projects upfront costs of $1.043 billion—"a figure that is subject to significant uncertainty"—to bring back the North Coast Hiawatha, which until 30 years ago this month connected Chicago and Seattle via Missoula.

"I think, as with most folks, the initial price tag of the estimate that Amtrak and its consultant came out with is a little bit staggering," says Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier, among the state's top passenger rail proponents.

Despite the hefty price tag, Amtrak anticipates a positive net economic impact. The route would create 269 permanent Amtrak jobs, plus those created by some $330 million in capital expenditures for equipment.

The report projects that 359,000 passengers would ride the train annually, which translates into annual revenue of $43 million.

"Due to high projected ridership," the report states, "the North Coast Hiawatha's projected farebox recovery—the percentage of operating costs covered by ticket and food and beverage revenues —is 58 percent, which is higher than the average farebox recovery (51.8 percent in FY2008) of Amtrak's current long distance services."

Revenue of $43 million would mean an annual operating loss of $31.1 million.

"Well, so be it," says Strohmaier of the required subsidy. "We continue to be blind to the billions of dollars we dump into airline transportation and federal highway projects, and we forget that that's similarly a subsidy. So let's not fool ourselves."

In the spring, Ross Capon, director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, told the Independent he thought the likelihood of the North Coast Hiawatha coming back was 55 percent. Now he downgrades the chances to 45 percent.

"The big enchilada," Capon says, "is whether Congress will provide the funds to make it possible...It all depends on how hard the senators [in the seven states along the route] fight for it."

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