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Adding Amtrak to Southern Tier Adds $271 Million to Economy

October 12, 2021

Washington, D.C. – Restoring the North Coast Hiawatha as a daily Amtrak service could generate some $271 million each year in economic benefits to the seven states served while costing Amtrak roughly $68 million per year to operate, the Rail Passengers Association found in a new assessment of the restoration plan proposed by the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.

For Immediate Release (21-18)

Contact: Sean Jeans-Gail (202) 320-2723; [email protected]

Restoring Amtrak Service to Southern Tier Would Add $271 Million to Economies Along Route

Washington, D.C. – Restoring the North Coast Hiawatha as a daily Amtrak service could generate some $271 million each year in economic benefits to the seven states served while costing Amtrak roughly $68 million per year to operate, the Rail Passengers Association found in a new assessment of the restoration plan proposed by the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority.

As many as 426,000 passengers can be expected to take this train each year once it reaches a steady state of operation, including perhaps as many as 29,000 new passengers who would not otherwise travel at all using any travel mode if the train did not exist, according to Rail Passengers’ Research Note published this week.

“The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is excited to share the results of the Rail Passenger Association’s Research Note,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who chairs the rail Authority. “With some of the best long-distance route ridership numbers in the nation and projected economic benefits of over $270 million annually between Chicago and Seattle, this route would be economically and socially transformational for urban, rural, and tribal communities in Montana and throughout the Greater Northwest Region.”

The release of the economic assessment comes at an opportune time for communities in Montana looking to upgrade their transportation network. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, also known as the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act, authorizes the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to evaluate all options for restoring service to several discontinued long-distance routes—including the route through southern Montana. The provision was added through work led by U.S. Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

“Passenger rail creates jobs and grows the economy across Montana and is critical to keeping families and businesses across our state connected,” said Senator Tester. “The benefits of passenger rail are clear, and as we work to meet the infrastructure needs of the 21st century, I will continue fighting to expand affordable and accessible passenger rail service throughout the Treasure State.”

This summer the Authority asked the Rail Passengers Association to re-examine a 2009 North Coast restoration study prepared by Amtrak in response to congressional direction in Section 224 of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008. Big Sky also asked the Association to assess the scale of economic benefits from restored passenger service, using a set of notional station stops supplied by Big Sky and updating ridership projections initially provided by Amtrak. The Association’s researchers assessed potential total benefits using models co-developed with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Trent Lott Center, plus the commercially available IMPLAN economic-impact planning tool.

“Passenger rail is an economic engine in the communities it serves, thanks to two factors: additional spending from riders and businesses which that spending supports, and savings to the traveling public and municipal authorities,” said Rail Passengers President and CEO Jim Mathews. “Additional spending from riders in local economies comes as passengers board and alight in different places, opening their wallets along the way. And because they spend, workers at hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues, and retail outlets in turn recycle their earnings into the local economy, while the businesses for whom they work spend on services and supplies to keep their businesses running. Savings come from reduced road construction and maintenance costs, lower road deaths and pollution emissions, and savings to riders themselves in the form of lower overall trip costs.”

“We are interested in working on the possibility of having passenger rail come back through southern Montana,” noted David Kack, Western Transportation Institute’s Executive Director. “Not only are we interested in the rail service, but how it will connect to other modes, such as local and intercity bus service, and perhaps even other modes such as car sharing and bike sharing. Transportation and mobility have a tremendous impact on both individuals and communities, and enhancing mobility options are usually always a good thing.”

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which stands on the brink of final passage, includes at least $66 billion in funding to upgrade and expand America’s passenger train network. Several of the programs direct the USDOT to pay special attention to the anticipated positive economic and employment impacts when considering which projects to fund, with extra weight given to corridors which benefit rural communities. With the Rail Passengers’ economic impact study in hand, the Big Sky Rail Authority has an inside track to securing funding for projects that will reestablish passenger rail across the southern tier of the state.


About Rail Passengers Association

The Rail Passengers Association is the oldest and largest national organization serving as a voice for the more than 40 million rail passengers in the U.S. Our mission is to improve and expand conventional intercity and regional passenger train services, support higher speed rail initiatives, increase connectivity among all forms of transportation and ensure safety for our country's trains and passengers. All of this makes communities safer, more accessible, and more productive, improving the lives of everyone who lives, works, and plays in towns all across America.

About the Big Sky Rail Authority

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA) was established as a regional rail authority (and subdivision of state government) in 2020 through a joint resolution of 12 counties stretching the entire 600-mile width of Montana, from Idaho to North Dakota. Since then, the BSPRA has expanded to include 17 counties and is the largest transportation district in the state. The Authority’s purpose is to preserve and improve abandoned railroad service and to develop long-distance passenger rail service across southern Montana that not only connects communities within Montana but also connects to points outside the state.

About the Western Transportation Institute

The Western Transportation Institute (WTI) at Montana State University is the nation’s largest transportation institute focusing on rural transportation issues and has twice been designated a National University Transportation Center (UTC) by the U.S. Department of Transportation. WTI is currently the lead institution for the Small Urban, Rural and Tribal Center on Mobility (SURTCOM), a Tier I UTC. WTI has an annual research budget exceeding $5 million, and a multidisciplinary staff of 50 professionals, students and affiliated faculty. WTI has conducted research in over 40 states, as well as international work in nearly ten countries.