Missoula County to host virtual summit on restoring passenger rail to southern Montana

Missoula County will host a virtual Montana Passenger Rail Summit on Thursday, Sept. 17, to educate and advocate for the restoration of passenger rail service to southern Montana.

The summit is open to elected officials, government staff, business and tourism professionals, and anyone interested in restoring passenger rail service to southern Montana and increasing rail connectivity across the region.

Organizers are still finalizing the agenda, but confirmed speakers include:

  • Elaine Clegg, city council president, Boise, Idaho
  • Robert Eaton, director, State Supported Service and Government Affairs, Amtrak
  • Jordan Hess, councilman, City of Missoula
  • Jim Mathews, president and CEO, Rail Passengers Association
  • Roger Millar, secretary of transportation, Washington State Department of Transportation
  • Andrea Olsen, representative, Montana House
  • Beth Osborne, director, Transportation for America
  • John-Robert Smith, chairman, Transportation for America
  • John Spain, vice chairman, Southern Rail Commission
  • Dave Strohmaier, commissioner, Missoula County

“Restoring passenger rail service to southern Montana would be transformative for the state — economically, socially and environmentally,” Strohmaier said. “As we recover from the effects of COVID-19, it’s more critical than ever to make smart transportation investments that further community resiliency. Passenger rail is key to realizing that vision, and there is no reason why Montana shouldn’t be a leader in making this a reality.”

Strohmaier, with the support of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners and others, has spearheaded the current renewed effort to restore passenger rail service to the southern part of the state, similar to the North Coast Hiawatha Amtrak route that served Montana until 1979. In addition to providing long-distance transportation within the state, passenger rail restoration would provide for greater connectivity regionally, with possible connections to Seattle, Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake City.

State statute allows for counties to create a regional rail authority as a framework for administering and funding passenger rail service. Earlier this month, Missoula County commissioners finalized a resolution to create the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and commissioners from Dawson, Park and Sanders counties have expressed their intent to join.

“Bringing passenger rail back to southern Montana would be a game changer for our state, but it is no small task,” Hess said. “We need broad support and coordination from cities and towns across Montana. The summit will be an opportunity to add to the growing chorus of voices supporting passenger rail.”

Pre-registration for the virtual summit is now available at https://montanapassengerrailsummit.org/. Participants who pre-register will receive an email update when summit details are confirmed and full registration is available. The summit was originally scheduled to take place in-person in April but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Missoula County commissioners to consider placing countywide gas tax on primary ballot

Deschamps Lane
Deschamps Lane west of Missoula. Missoula County commissioners are seeking public comment as they consider adopting a resolution to place a countywide gas tax on the June 2 primary election ballot. Voters would ultimately decide whether to enact the 2 cent per gallon tax, revenue from which would fund road maintenance and improvements.

Missoula County commissioners are seeking public comment as they consider adopting a resolution to place a countywide gas tax on the June 2 primary election ballot. Missoula County voters would ultimately decide whether to enact the 2 cent per gallon tax, revenue from which would fund road maintenance and improvements.

The first public hearing on the issue will be at the commissioners’ public meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, in the Sophie Moiese Room at the Missoula County Courthouse. The board will take constituent comments until the public meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday, March 5, when they will vote on whether to adopt the resolution.

In addition to attending the meetings, the public can submit comment by calling 406-258-4877 or emailing bcc@missoulacounty.us.

If adopted, commissioners will sign the resolution at a special administrative public meeting at 3 p.m. Monday, March 9, in Administration Building Room 206 so it can be delivered to the Elections Office by the 5 p.m. filing deadline.

In an effort to pursue revenue sources beyond increasing property taxes, Commissioner Josh Slotnick has worked on this initiative with the City of Missoula and a recently formed local advocacy group over the past several months. Figures estimated by staff indicate a 2-cent per gallon tax would generate an estimated $1.1 million, which would be split equally between Missoula County and the City of Missoula to pay for construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of public roads. Estimates show that non-residents visiting the county would generate around $400,000 of the total revenue.

Montana Code Annotated 7-14-301 through 7-14-304 gives county commissioners authority to adopt a resolution placing a local option fuel tax on the ballot. If approved by voters, the tax must be imposed in increments of 1 cent per gallon and cannot exceed 2 cents per gallon. Revenue derived from the tax must be divided among the county and municipalities in the county according to one of the methods outlined in MCA 7-14-303. Missoula is the only incorporated municipality in Missoula County.