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On The Rails Again?

by Patricia Graybow

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I bet you’ve noticed it’s been nice outside lately, like extra nice—temperate, blue skies, gorgeous. Enough to make a normal person go for a drive, hike or picnic at Pine Creek, just get outside and remind yourself why you live in Montana. So, what did I do last weekend instead? I dropped in on the Big Sky Rail Authority Annual meeting in Missoula.

But, it was actually fun, too. First initiated with the vision of Dave Strohmaier, a Missoula County Commissioner, it’s something with which, as an incurable ex-commissioner policy geek, I’ve muddied my hands with off and on for a decade and a half. A few years ago, I worked with Dave and Andrea Olsen and the people of Livingston to get funding for a rail passenger service study and sanction passed through the Montana State Legislature. It was wonderful to pass the legislation, and when we went to the transportation committee for implementation, a new lesson awaited. It turned out that unless it was their own dream, legislators often sit on such an idea and do nothing about it. Being derailed was not quite what we were aiming for.

Undaunted, Dave Strohmaier then discovered that county commissioners have the legal right, under other Montana legislation, to create rail authorities. Dave went to work, and the results were impressive. What I was a part of again a few years later at the Big Sky Rail Authority Annual Meeting was a meeting in a massive room in the beautiful Missoula library, another dream realized, full of enthusiastic, innovative people having a wonderful time hoping to pave the way to return passenger service to Montana. Livingston’s city manager, Grant Gager, now serves on their board of directors.

The weekend was fascinating in lots of ways. I learned that tiny St. Regis. Montana, under the leadership of a former school superintendent, George Bailey, has created St. Regis Solar Hydrogen (SRSH2) and attracted a world-class team to develop the company. SRSH2 believes that people living in distressed rural communities deserve access to well-paying jobs, and that by working together, they can develop a beacon of hope for rural America. SRSH2 as it happens is Node 8 in the Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub, which recently was awarded $1 billion for infrastructure development.

So, Montana is not only working for the return of rail passenger service, but some even hope to power trains with hydrogen, created with non-polluting energy. What an inspiring weekend!

And what is the secret ingredient for positive developments like this? The Park County Community Foundation Annual 2023 Report, just out, suggested it’s love, coupled hopefully with cooperation, determination, and sometimes just fun. I liked that. That report also says that in a poll people think the challenges facing Park County include political divisions (22%) and intolerance of others (17%). Something to fix from every angle.

After my last Op Ed, which I expressed confidence in our city manager, the majority of the city commission, and the vital role our remarkable Growth Policy have played in the entire picture, I received several phone calls questioning my praise. One woman is losing her home in the Montague Subdivision because of the cost with annexation a few years ago of putting in the water and sewer lines, as well as the new resulting taxes that are just too much for her entry-level wages. She was crying on the phone. She knew that I was at the city commission meeting the night the city annexed in the Montague subdivision, and that I had spoken opposing it. She was heartbroken and had nowhere to turn. No one would call her back. I got a similar call regarding the Brookside housing development. These were not positive things.

Unfortunately, these are still residual legacies from the previous city administration. The current manager and commission majority were not responsible for those actions, but like it or not, they inherited them anyway. I wish those actions could be undone, but my impression is the new people are trying the best they can with that sad mess, given the limits on

their offices.

It’s not personal. Many in the community still grieve the former manager. Who was a devoted husband and father of six. It may take years to do so, including some folks on the current commission, and you can’t not feel for them when they worked with him regularly day-to-day, as they try to heal.

That said, however, policies are not the person and vice versa. They are policies. And if we’re honest with ourselves, there have been mistakes, many of them serious: The annexation of Green Acres, against the strong collective choice of those who lived there; the annexation of the Montague subdivision with 32 people showing up all to speak against it when it happened anyway no matter what they said; the creation of the Brookside Housing Project with its “shortcuts;” the (to be honest) pointless theft of the TBID and CVB from the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce, which had worked so hard to create them; the potential threat of the annexation of the “donut area” around Livingston; the $20 million planned development and underpass at exit 330 (where an overpass would be better) that would have put $9 million into the project and putting the balance of funds into infrastructure for existing wealthy landholders; and the original planned siting of the Wellness Center into our iconic Miles Park atop river terrain and landfill; which would have re-appropriated a large and generous 33 acre gift received years ago by the Miles family specifically for future use as a public park.

These are hard reminders that city administrations may not do well listening to the people. That is a fact of record. It is, however, time to move forward hopefully with vital lessons finally taken hard to heart.

There are important questions on the plate. I mentioned the prospect of rail passenger service. Previously I have mentioned my hope that we could research and apply for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on our amazing history as the first rail entrance to the very first national park in the world (among some 6555 that would spring up after it), with some of our 20 original Yellowstone hotels becoming mixed-use including revived service as accommodations for visitors from across the US and the world, customers for our 350 downtown businesses. Add in upgrade plans for a revitalized world-class Park County Museum, the city’s identification of economic health as one of our strategic goals, and even hopes our railroad shops could imaginably see new use someday, all while creating a community not imposed on but based on our collective will, in our remarkable Growth Policy. Challenging as it is, we want to remain a real town with an economically viable downtown.

Already creative solutions are emerging to some of the more specific issues discussed in the PCCF document. People surveyed identified housing as a concern. There is a 62-unit new housing unit proposed where Industrial Towel used to be. I have discussed the danger before of improvements getting eaten up by Bozeman, but it’s a smart project.

Another thing that will need addressing in future, a policy flaw during the previous administration I used to try to bring up, is discussion of policy between meetings by the administration and commissioners, referred to in legal terminology as a “walking quorum.” Some have called this unobjectionable, but it may be the Montana Attorney General could force us to address it. Whether some find it inconvenient or not, the public needs to remain informed openly at the same time as the commission and administration on policy matters. Transparency makes for better government.

We all can make efforts. The Livingston Downtown Building Owners and Business Association (LDBOBA), with which I serve as president, has revived our downtown Yellowstone Bus historic tours and was helped with a grant from the TBID, with which Kris King, Kathleen Kaul, and its board of directors were very helpful. It’s hard to believe the LDBOBA has been providing those tours for 17 years!

It’s also time to heal the pointless damage done in recent years to the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce, with which I have worked in past. We are extremely fortunate in its hard-working director Leslie Feigel, who deserved far better treatment than she came to receive in recent years. Entities like Explore Livingston need to work constructively and cooperatively with it together in the age that followed the railroad pullout and the shift of traffic to our highway bypass a half century ago instead of through town with the railroad, leaving us with three exits two miles from our central business district. We have much to do, and it requires a team effort. I now think all parties are making a welcomed effort. Kudos. If the TBID and CVB stay with Explore Livingston for now, so be it, till mutual respect lets us see more objectively, and cooperation and kindness prevail more and more. We have big fish to fry, and at least a good starting point with our city manager and commission majority having stood firm against assaults on our wonderful, and I do mean wonderful, Growth Policy that over 1600 of us participated in and stand by.

We may not hit it quite like St Regis and hydrogen, but we can still get the train back on track, and if we’re lucky, with some time and effort, maybe even imaginably as an inclusive community team, under alternative power and with a few passengers on it to boot.


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