by Travis Mateer
Despite the infuriating image of Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, this post isn’t about the growing alarm over the derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. Nope, it’s about the train OBSESSION our County Commissioner, Dave Strohmaier, has developed regarding his dream of seeing passenger rail return to the region.
Four days after the derailment, all three Commissioners discussed Dave’s update for the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. First Dave gives us some histrionics, explaining how Amtrak ended passenger rail through Missoula in 1979.
Now, all these years later, Commissioner Dave has realized a mechanism exists that allows Missoula County to form a new governmental entity, so that’s what they did with the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. Here’s one of my favorite (and most terrifying) quotes from Dave Strohmaier as he kicks his exuberance for passenger rail into high gear:
“…the law is written so broadly that we could actually be a railroad if we wanted to be…that is not what we’re about, I’m not going to be wearing a conductors hat on the train anytime soon, but WE COULD!”
Is Dave Strohmaier threatening us? Because it kinda sounds like he is. Then, later in the podcast episode, Dave talks about WHY they spent time and resources during the pandemic on creating this new authority. You see, Dave had a hunch that a BIG infrastructure bill would be coming and…he was RIGHT!
Dave is also very excited that a Federal study is being conducted for 15 million dollars that will determine just what routes could be revived. Dave is expecting this study to be done by November of 2023 and said explicitly that “…our goal is to do everything humanly possible in the next 10 months to make sure that this route is at the top of the heap for recommended routes…” When fellow Commissioner, Josh Slotnick, asked HOW this would be done, Dave sort of chuckles proudly and says:
Well, it helped that we had a hand in writing the criteria by which these routes would be reviewed!
After Dave makes this statement, all three Commissioners give rich belly-laughs. It’s chilling.
Beyond the Federal money, Dave is also shaking down the Montana Healthcare Foundation for money to do “tribal and rural stakeholder engagement across Montana”. Why would a healthcare foundation want to partner with a train authority, Dave asks? Because transportation is a huge factor in “social determinants for health”.
Things get a little awkward when the tribes–and the history of trains disappearing their roaming, tribal presence across the west–is touched on. “A vector for a lot of negativity,” says Commissioner Slotnick. Dave then points out the irony that tribes across Montana are some of the biggest partners to the Big Sky Passenger Rail.
How many routes are being considered, Commissioner Vero asks? In our region, just two primary routes are being considered, says Dave. The one Dave hopes will get the Federal Lazarus treatment is the Northcoast Hiawatha route, which once extended from Chicago to Seattle. The other route is the Pioneer Route, which extends from Cheyenne to Denver, Salt Lake City, then to Portland. That route was discontinued in the 1990s.
While Dave Strohmaier is in Denver doing his train thing, he is going to also examine the route that went from Denver to Billings and champion the madness of ideas like connecting El Paso, Texas all the way up to Calgary, in Canada. Dave points out how few North/South rail lines exist, so he’s dreaming BIG!
“Dave, you should be more ambitious,” Josh Slotnick jokes. Dave’s response?
“I figure if we can fly a helicopter on Mars, we can figure out how to run trains on planet earth here!”
At this point Commissioner Slotnick starts pivoting to climate change, so I take a look at the time and it’s only HALF DONE! I don’t think 15 minutes of a podcast has ever felt so long.
After a much needed break I returned for more nuggets of insight into why this passenger rail pipe dream should be a priority for a Missoula County Commissioner, and Dave gave me three “clusters” of benefits. The first is “economic development”. For Missoula, Dave envisions enhancing the vibrancy of downtown. Dave claims the economic benefit for the states this route runs through will be around $270 million dollars.
The second cluster is “transportation equity” and the third is environmental/sustainability benefits because, in this case, diesel engines are ok, says Dave, but it’s also possible to electrify rail because it was done 100 years ago.
Another question that came up is freight routes, and whether there would be conflict. Those train interests are at the table, Dave says, because they’re on the board! And if there’s more “double-tracking” happening, instead of single-track, then trains can pass each other. I think it’s hilarious that this politician who stood on a bridge that will get its car lanes reduced is all gung-ho for laying more train tracks across the country.
Commissioner Josh then asks a “political question” about this “moment for rail” because, says Josh, we have “Amtrak Joe, being leader of the free world, and Mayor Pete, the secretary of transportation…to what degree is all this success vulnerable to a switch in administrations?”
As part of Dave’s response, he points to the red hue of some of the counties in Montana signing on to the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. Dave even claims Mitt Romney is down for trains! So totally bipartisan and, Dave hopes, insulated from the fickle winds of political change.
If you think this is totally cool, and you want to help, you can give your time FOR FREE to the passenger rail authority! But the 30 minutes I spent listening to Dave Strohmaier? Sadly, I’ll never get that time back.
If you appreciate the monumental effort it takes to listen to Dave’s love of trains (which goes back 16 years, according to Commissioner Vero) then consider making a financial donation at my about page.
Thanks for reading!
Re the opening photo … why are their arms all crossed?
Try opposing them and you’ll find out 😉
Strohmaier is just like all the other idea people more than willing to spend money that someone else earned. It’s all about their own legacy and hiding behind words like equity.
You might enjoy the bonus post coming later this morning, then. It pits the ideas of OPEN SPACE against DENSITY using the Rattlesnake conservation plan to protect a winery forever and ever from development.