Glasgow Courier: Connecting The Hi-Line

Traveling around our state, from the wheat fields and rolling hills in the east to the jagged snow-covered peaks almost 500 miles to the west, it is easy to understand why our state really is Big Sky Country. 

That’s why it’s so important to ensure that Montanans in rural communities can easily travel not only across our state, but the region and country as well. Amtrak’s Empire Builder runs approximately 660 miles across Montana and connects 12 rural communities. For the many Montanans who live a long ways from an airport, but live close to a rail station, it’s critical to not only maintain our current stations but find opportunities to build new ones.

Before the time of airplanes, my great-great-grandmother arrived in Shelby on the Empire Builder and made her way south towards Conrad. Rail transportation – and the Empire Builder—has a strong history of serving rural Montanans. 

During a recent Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing, I received commitment from Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman that he will visit and work with eastern Montana leaders to discuss reopening the Culbertson stop.

Amtrak connects communities between urban centers – connecting Chicago to Seattle and Portland. That’s why this commitment from Amtrak is great news not only for business and industry in northeastern Montana, but for the tens of thousands of Empire Builder passengers last year, and everyone who wants to take advantage of the passenger rail’s east-west travel.

Culbertson has existing infrastructure and the train already passes through the town at ideal times, making it a good choice for an additional Empire Builder stop. In a previously completed feasibility study, Amtrak indicated that a Culbertson stop would have a net positive economic impact.

The recent hearing was my first conversation with Mr. Boardman since I worked to successfully secure language in the long-term highway funding bill that was signed into law by President Obama requiring Amtrak to evaluate the benefits of new Amtrak stops, including the Culbertson stop. I look forward to following the progress as Mr. Boardman fulfills his commitment to meet with local leaders and discuss moving this project forward.

The long-term highway funding bill finally provides certainty to the people of Montana to make purchasing decisions and get some of our state’s major infrastructure projects completed.

Our transportation infrastructure is a critical component of our state’s economy and it’s imperative that communities have the certainty needed to move forward with projects like the Amtrak Culbertson stop. Nearly 90 percent of Montana’s highway program is supported by federal dollars, and the highway bill will provide $2.28 billion over the next five years towards some of our state’s 425 existing infrastructure projects that were at risk without federal support.

Whether traveling by roads, rails or air, there is a lot of ground to cover in Big Sky Country. And as Montana’s voice in the U.S. Senate, I will continue to work to expand transportation options for Montanans in rural areas and secure common-sense projects like a Culbertson Empire Builder stop.

Steve Daines is the junior United States Senator from Montana.