The Coalition proposes a new passenger train through southern North Dakota – InForum
FARGO — An informal group hopes to formalize its organization to restore a passenger rail line from Minnesota to southern North Dakota and Montana in the coming months. With new federal funds under the Build Back Better Transportation Infrastructure Bill, they hope the dream of bringing back the rail line that would eventually reach the West Coast will come true.
Two members of the Greater Northwest Rail Coalition were in Fargo on Friday, Dec. 10 to talk with residents and government officials about joining the effort.
Federal dollars are set aside in the new infrastructure bill to create regional rail authorities to continue work on expanding long-distance lines.
The new line, called North Coast Route, would restore a passenger line that operated for several years before ending in 1979. It would include Fargo, Bismarck and Dickinson in North Dakota and Billings, Bozeman, Missoula and Helena in Montana . .
Since 1979, many efforts have failed to get Amtrak to restore the line.
Jason Stuart, vice president of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority which helps lead the coalition, said this time around is different because it’s a coordinated effort. Already, dozens of counties and cities along the proposed route have joined the coalition.
Stuart, of Glendive, Montana, said the two North Dakota senators, Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven, signed a letter supporting the formation of an official task force on the project.
The cost of preparing BNSF rail lines to handle the estimated two trains a day could be around $1 billion, Stuart said. However, he said, the BNSF has already spent around that amount in recent years upgrading the track, crossings and creating double tracks on some sections.
Stuart said a 2009 study found the cost would be $1 billion, but with inflation and BNSF improvements the cost would likely be the same or even lower.
However, Stuart and Dan Bilka, director of the Rail Passengers Association of Denver, said the economic benefits would provide a tenfold return on investment by Amtrak to states along the route.
In addition, the two men pointed to the tourist, social and environmental benefits.
In North Dakota, a study showed that 42,000 passengers would board the train each year with an overall contribution to the state economy of $32.4 million.
Avoided road maintenance costs would be $1.7 million, with more vehicles taken off the roads, they said.
Additional benefits would be increased tax revenue and spending at local restaurants and stores, bringing in about $750,000, they said.
“These estimates are conservative,” Stuart said.
Additionally, the Empire Builder, which travels 2,200 miles through the Midwest to the Northwest, would continue to deliver its economic output of approximately $596 million in eight states with stops in 46 cities, including Fargo in the middle of the night. The federal cost for the Empire Builder road is $57.4 million a year, but the return, Stuart pointed out, is 10 times that amount.
If support grows in communities along this new route, Stuart said, service could begin in seven years instead of the originally planned 10 years.
Cass County Commissioner Duane Breitling, who attended the session at Fargo City Hall, said he thought the chances of success would be more likely if only federal funding was used.
Stuart said the plan is not to ask local or state governments for “a dime” to fund the new road.
The support has so far transcended politics and the urban-rural divide, he said.
Many small towns, cities and tribes in eight states support the restoration of the line that would run from Chicago to Washington State.
Currently, looking at a map of the country’s current Amtrak routes, there is a huge open space in the northwest, with only the Empire Builder providing service. In other parts of the country, there are many options for passenger rail connections.
“It’s high time for the great North West,” Bilka said.
If the project is carried out, Stuart and Bilka said they would not stop there and would work to create more north-south routes through this region.