The Empire Builder of Amtrak in Shelby, Montana. (Photo courtesy of Prasenberg via Wikimedia Commons).
The potential restoration of Amtrak service to the North Coast Hiawatha Line connecting Chicago to Portland and Seattle through southern Montana could generate the seven states along the line more than $270 million a year once fully actualized, according to a high-level analysis by the Rail Passengers Association.
Montana could stand to accrue more than $40 million in economic benefit, according to the study, which was commissioned by the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, a consortium that advocates for restoration of passenger rail service in Montana’s southern tier.
“It’s validating,” said Dave Strohmaier, a Missoula County Commissioner and chair of the authority. “That’s in full recognition that there’s a lot more work yet to do.”
Passenger rail went through southern Montana for much of the 20th century. But when Amtrak was born and took control of the line in the early 1970s, the unprofitable North Coast Hiawatha’s days were clearly numbered, despite the efforts of some high-profile U.S. lawmakers to save it. By 1979, Amtrak shuttered the Hiawatha, leaving Montana with one passenger route — the Empire Builder, which follows the Hi-Line.
A variety of stakeholders have advocated to bring the Hiawatha back since, an effort that’s gained steam under the rail-friendly administration of President Joe Biden. Advocates like Strohmaier say that reviving the Hiawatha would improve connectivity in Montana’s southern corridor, where the bulk of the state’s population is concentrated, while generating economic growth in communities across the line.
The study estimates that ridership along the entire stretch could eventually reach 426,000 a year, which would put the Hiawatha among Amtrak’s highest-traffic long distance lines. Strohmaier said that the bulk of that traffic would come from out of state — either people crossing through Montana or visiting popular destinations like Yellowstone. Around 29,000 of those riders wouldn’t be traveling otherwise, the study estimates, generating $5 million in new spending across the line each year.North+Coast+Hiawatha+Restoration
The study says $550,000 of that new spending, and $415,000 in new tax revenue, would go to Montana. It also assumes that there’ll be some savings due to a reduction in vehicle miles traveled in favor of Amtrak travel, not to mention the environmental benefits.
The annual cost to Amtrak is estimated at $68 million. But it’s difficult to estimate up-front capital expenditures. The study adjusts previous five-year estimates that Amtrak provided as part of a feasibility study it did in 2009, finding that the five-year cost would sit around $795 million over half a decade.
However, Strohmaier said that many of the improvements factored into that estimate have already been completed by existing freight operators, and that getting a more accurate grasp on capital costs would require more granular analysis. Plus, the modeling used in the Rail Passengers Association study also assumes that there’ll be a stop in every county along the line, which isn’t a practical reality, Strohmaier said. In other words, more research is needed.
“What we’re currently proposing is not that Amtrak would conduct that study but actually that the Department of Transportation would do it,” he said.
Language in the federal surface transportation reauthorization bill — which is currently before Congress — provides $15 million for the federal government to study reinstating several long-distance passenger rail routes, including the North Coast Hiawatha.
But it’s not just research for the sake of research, Strohmaier said. He’s hopeful that the $12 billion for expanding intercity rail in the federal infrastructure package will go to making the Hiawatha a reality in the near future.
“The bill contains real dollars for project implementation,” he said.
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