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Coalition proposes new passenger train through southern North Dakota

New route would go through Fargo, Bismarck and Dickinson and then into Montana to the West Coast.

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Amtrak's Empire Builder train makes a stop in Fargo in 2010 on its way from Chicago to Seattle. Forum file photo
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FARGO — An informal group is hoping to formalize its organization to restore a passenger rail line from Minnesota through southern North Dakota and into Montana in the coming months. With new federal dollars under the Build Back Better transportation infrastructure bill, they're hopeful that the dream of bringing back the rail line that would eventually reach the west coast will become a reality.

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 further work on expanding long-range lines.

The new line, which is referred to as the North Coast Route, would restore a passenger line that ran 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.

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Jason Stuart, vice chairman of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority that is helping spearhead the coalition, said this time is different as it's a coordinated effort. Already, dozens of counties and cities along the proposed route have signed on to the coalition.

Stuart, of Glendive, Montana, said North Dakota's two senators, Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven, have signed a letter in support of forming an official working group on the project.

The cost for preparing the BNSF rail lines to handle the estimated two trains a day could be about $1 billion, Stuart said. However, he said, BNSF has already spent about that amount in recent years to upgrade the track, crossings and create double tracks on some stretches.

Stuart said a 2009 study found the cost would be $1 billion, but with inflation and BNSF's improvements, the cost would likely be the same or even less.

However, Stuart and Dan Bilka, a director of the Rail Passengers Association from Denver, said the economic benefits would provide a tenfold return on investments by Amtrak to states along the route.

In addition, the two men pointed to the tourism, social and environmental benefits.

In North Dakota, a study has shown 42,000 passengers would board the train each year with an overall contribution to the state's economy of $32.4 million.

Avoided road maintenance costs would be $1.7 million, with more vehicles being taken off the roads, they said.

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Additional benefits would be increased tax receipts and spending in local restaurants and shops, bringing in about $750,000, they said.

"Those estimates are conservative," Stuart said.

In addition, the Empire Builder that travels 2,200 miles across the Midwest into the Northwest would continue to provide its economic return of about $596 million across eight states with stops at 46 cities, including Fargo in the middle of the night. The federal cost for the Empire Builder route is $57.4 million per year, but the return, Stuart pointed out, is 10 times that amount.

If support grows in communities along this new route, Stuart said, the service could begin in seven years instead of an initially projected 10 years.

Cass County Commissioner Duane Breitling, who attended the session at Fargo City Hall, said he believes the chances for its success would be more likely if only federal funding was used.

Stuart said the plan is to not ask local governments or states "for a dime" to fund the new route.

Support has so far transcended politics and the urban-rural divide, he said.

Many small towns, large cities and tribes across eight states support the restoration of the line which would run from Chicago to Washington state.

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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 nation, there are numerous options for passenger rail connections.

"It's high time for the great Northwest," Bilka said.

If the project is accomplished, Stuart and Bilka said they wouldn't stop there and would work to create more north-south routes through this region.

An almost 50-year veteran of the newspaper business, Amundson has worked for The Forum and Forum News Service for 15 years. He started as a sport reporter in Minnesota. He is currently the city and night reporter for The Forum. bamundson@forumcomm.com 701-451-5665
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