Sunday, May 09, 2021

Working on the railroad

Staff Writer | April 29, 2021 1:00 AM

The North Coast Hiawatha passenger train was discontinued in 1979, but a new executive committee is looking at restoring it to connect Montana’s southern counties to Spokane through North Idaho. 

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority executive committee, based out of Montana, presented the idea to the Kootenai County commissioners Monday to gain traction with neighboring communities. 

Connecting passengers from Chicago to the West Coast, the North Coast Hiawatha route used to run parallel with Empire Builder — an Amtrak long-distance passenger train — via southern Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. 

“This is truly a regional effort. This is not just solely in the state of Montana,” Missoula County Commissioner and Chairman of the BSPRA executive committee Dave Strohmaier said. “What we’re talking about is a multistate regional effort to restore one of a key pieces of our nation’s long-distance intercity passenger rail networks, and that is the North Coast Hiawatha rail.” 

Believing that the project will only be successful with cooperation across state lines, the BSPRA executive committee — a board dedicated to providing for the preservation and improvement of abandoned rail service — is asking nearby officials like those in Kootenai County to draft letters of support. The executive committee also encourages the public to reach out to legislative representatives and the Governor’s Office, urging to restore the North Coast Hiawatha route and Pioneer route that runs through the southern half of Idaho. 

“This is a joint effort,” Strohmaier said. “It’s not about one state trying to accomplish something at the exclusion of another but looking at how we can enhance our overall transportation network in the greater Northwest region for the benefit of all of us.” 

At the end of March, President Joe Biden unveiled his “American Jobs Plan” and infrastructure proposal to invest billions of dollars into national transportation networks. The plan is $80 billion explicitly designated for expanding passenger and freight railways like those managed by Amtrak — which previously operated the North Coast Hiawatha route — to connect citizens to more jobs and reduce congestion and vehicle emissions. Strohmaier noted that legislation like this and the support of Montana’s regional neighbors would be robust vehicles in moving this project forward. 

Traditionally, the North Coast Hiawatha route’s Idaho station was in Sandpoint. Strohmaier said all options are on the table for local governments, like Kootenai County, to have a voice in shaping the service locations on the railway.  

“If there is a local will and drive there in Kootenai County to get a station put on the route, then we’re happy to hear it as part of the final package,” Dawson County Economic Development Council Director Jason Stuart said. “Just because there wasn’t one there before doesn’t mean there can’t be one there in the future.” 

Referencing the tourist economy of Coeur d’Alene, the committee believes having a nearby station would boost Kootenai County’s visiting population and enhance economic opportunities by transporting consumers.

“(People) like to go visit Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint. Northern Idaho is a major tourist area for the folks here in eastern Montana and Western North Dakota,” Stuart said. “Right now, the only way they can get to you is to drive. So you would have a lot more tourists coming from this part of the country, you would strengthen your tourism and your business connections.”

While the commissioners expressed general favor for the project, members of the public at the meeting were more hesitant about the idea of bringing outsiders to the Kootenai County area. Carla Mattare, president of the Kootenai County Republican Women Federated, was very concerned about getting more public transportation in the community. 

“It’s not necessarily transportation just from point A to point B, but it’s a transportation system that will take us all the way out to the east coast, and Chicago is very concerning,” Mattare said. “Coming from the Washington D.C. area, I see how public transportation doesn’t add to the community. It actually affects the community adversely.” 

Touching on the potential link to the Biden push for rail infrastructure, William Le questioned why there is a need to bring back what he called a “regressive form of transportation.” He also hinted that it could be a means to move people throughout the country with minimal regulations. 

“Why is it that someone would want to have railways in America that span all the way across America to allow anyone to travel? Because you don’t have to have a driver’s license, you just have to have some government ID,” Le pointed out. “If you look at the southern border, the things that are happening, we have a lot of new people that want to get into America … It just sounds awfully fishy to build a railway.”