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Nation’s ‘largest’ rail investment entices Montana passenger rail advocates

Missoula Railroad
Posted at 10:37 AM, Apr 03, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-03 12:37:54-04

MISSOULA — The U.S. Department of Transportation recently made $2.4 billion available to help local railroads modernize both freight and passenger rail infrastructure, and the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority may consider several projects.

The Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement Program (CRISI), looks to advance projects that modernize the nation's rail infrastructure.

It applies to both freight and passenger service and is funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg hailed the funding round as the biggest in history “that modernizes freight and intercity passenger rail infrastructure.”

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority agreed.

“This is the first time, to anyone's knowledge, that the federal government has invested in rail in a way that is expanding passenger rail,” said authority chairman Dave Strohmaier. “For decades, it's been a matter of retrenchment and scaling back, but never a broader vision of expanding the network in this country.”

In last year's funding round, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) selected 70 projects in 35 states including bridge, track, and grade-crossing improvements, along with investments to restore and expand intercity passenger rail corridors.

The FRA described such investments as “a major part of this national effort to create a modern transportation network that will keep Americans safe and make the U.S. competitive in the 21st century.”

“This is an unprecedented investment in rail in general,” Strohmaier said. “Even though we've been more heavily focused on passenger operations, we're seeing this opportunity to invest in freight operations, which has the added advantage of benefiting passenger possibilities in the future.”

The grant has aided rail companies in Montana before.

In 2020, Montana Rail Link received $3.5 million to install positive train control on 600 miles of mainline rail across Montana and Idaho.

Last year, the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority also secured federal funding with Amtrak to address a “bottleneck” for passenger and freight services near Malta.

Strohmaier said the grant requires a local match and only a government entity can apply.

“The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is an eligible applicant where BNSF is not,” he said. “We can provide a key role in accessing these federal dollars in a way that private companies would not otherwise be able to.”

Strohmaier added, “Even if the rail authority is not directly going after these dollars, there's no reason why other local governments can't throw their hat in the ring to get ahead of the curve and get some of these infrastructure upgrades in place that would facilitate both freight operations and set the stage for future passenger rail.”