A revived effort to reinstate passenger rail service in southern Montana picked up steam Tuesday, with the Schweitzer administration backing the idea and Amtrak officials outlining possible funding sources.
Passenger trains last chugged through southern Montana in 1979, and supporters said the time has come for them to run again.
State ridership on Montana's current lone passenger route, Amtrak's Empire Builder along the Hi-Line, is up at least 20 percent and travelers are looking for more options in the face of high gas prices and heightened air travel costs and security, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger said.
"This couldn't come at a better time," said Jim Lynch, director of the state Department of Transportation.
The idea of reinstating a passenger line in southern Montana has been debated before, the last time in 2000. Supporters want a route from Missoula to Helena to Bozeman to Livingston to Billings and then on to Chicago and the East Coast. Eventually, it could stretch west to Spokane, Wash., and Portland, Ore.
The biggest obstacle in the past has been money, but that could change this time around.
For the first time, capital matching grants may be available for states looking to expand rail service, said Ray Lang, Amtrak's senior director of governmental affairs in Chicago.
Legislation setting up such a program is scheduled for debate by a U.S. Senate committee next week.
The bill, introduced in January, would provide about $340 million in matching grants a year paying for up to 80 percent of a qualifying project, Lang said.
"That authorized sum of money never existed before," he said.
Sen. Lane Larson, D-Billings, said he also planned to propose money for a feasibility study of a southern Montana passenger route later this week or early next week. He did not yet know how much he would ask for.
A government-owned corporation, Amtrak reported record ticket revenue of $1.37 billion in the last fiscal year, an 11 percent increase over fiscal year 2005, with ridership up 1 percent to 24.3 million passengers. The system, created in the 1970s to take over declining passenger rail service, is heavily dependent on government funding; it received $1.3 billion from Congress, including a $485 million operating subsidy, for the 2006 fiscal year.
The corporation is hoping to receive $1.5 billion in the coming year, Lang said.
Montana's southern rail route carried passengers for decades before cuts in federal funding phased out the service in 1979.
"We were promised a train as soon as things leveled out, and we're still waiting," said Warren McGee, 92, a Livingston trustee with the Montana-Wyoming Association of Railroad Passengers.
Amtrak's Empire Builder, in contrast, survived the funding cuts and is one of the corporation's most popular long-distance routes, largely because of the remote communities it serves in Montana and North Dakota, Lang said.
Evan Barrett, the governor's chief economic development officer, said reinstating a southern route won't come at the expense of the Empire Builder for that very reason _ too many Montanans depend on it.
"We're not going to pit areas of the state of Montana against each other," he said.
He called the proposed rail expansion a "long-term vision" that will require plenty of money, study and cooperation from local, state and federal officials to become a reality, Barrett said.
Barrett urged supporters to stick together on the issue and promised more action once the Legislature adjourns later this month.
"This will be extraordinarily important if it were to happen," he said.