BUTTE, MT - Do you ever sit back and imagine what the state of Montana looked like 10 years ago? 20? 30, maybe even 40?

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It's no secret that Montana has been witnessing city-wide and statewide changes in recent years. That's okay in some ways, since things just naturally progress and develop throughout the years to arrive at different stages. Montana used to be a bastion for remote lands, roamed mostly by indigenous wildlife and the occasional railcar. Now, Montana is dominated by growing cities, growing industries, and the only remoteness really is the remote workers who've called Montana their home.

But if you lived here 45 years ago or earlier, you may remember that—even though it's become an old relic of the frontier past—a passenger railway system operated throughout Montana and even connected Montanans to other states in the U.S. Though that may seem long gone in Montana's forgotten history, it may not be true, as momentum for a passenger railway here in Montana has just gotten through an important step towards making it a reality.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, or the BSPRA, has made significant progress in its efforts to restore passenger rail service in Montana, finally moving beyond the hardened debate of feasibility and into the planning phase. Numerous key updates were presented to the Montana Legislature's Transportation Interim Committee, highlighting the state's potential benefits from federal infrastructure investments while studies showcased the feasibility and heightened desire from Montanans. Reportedly, even Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is "on board" with the whole plan.

If you're not familiar with the project, there are two preferred long-distance routes have been identified through Montana: an east-west line connecting Seattle to Chicago (so Tommy O can go see his Bears games) and a north-south line to Billings. What's cool is that these routes were selected in a Federal Railroad Administration study, which is a major milestone for BSPRA. However, both that study and the BSPRA are focalizing support on restoration of the North Coast Hiawatha route, which was discontinued in 1979. Major Montana stops for this route include Missoula, Helena, Butte, Bozeman, Billings, and Glendive.

So, what does this "planning stage" mean, exactly? Supported by a $500,000 grant from the Department of Transportation, this stage is aimed at developing a service plan that includes station restorations, additional signals, and double-tracking where necessary to avoid freight congestion. What's exciting is that a “shovel-ready project” will hopefully be ready to go in 2.5 to three years.

This is a huge deal for Montana, as many claim its benefits are substantial for all Montanans: rural areas can be connected to more populated areas; transportation between cities can be predominately through the railway, making highways less congested for traffic and wildlife; this mode of transportation is usually much cheaper than other options; and even the passes, such as Homestake, can be traversable via railcar when the highways are closed in the winter.

I, myself, have long been an advocate for more options (especially reliable ones) for public transportation, and this one in particular makes me the most excited. The only downside has to do with us here in Butte: many are questioning the feasibility of the tracks that run through Butte already, and connecting it to the east to a city like Bozeman. Don't worry, though: Butte is still in the mix, says authorities, and will not be forgotten.

What are you most excited for with this monumental step towards a Montana railway?

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