By Michael Howell
Ravalli County received a letter of denial last week from the Montana Department of Transportation in response to the loan application the county presented to the Montana Essential Freight Loan Program for the rehabilitation of Montana Rail Link’s line from Missoula to Darby.
Ravalli County, primarily through the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, worked with local businesses and hammered out a deal to keep the Bitterroot rail spur open for a year at least as far as Victor. They worked, unsuccessfully, to apply for federal funding to make needed repairs on the line. But a deal was brokered with MRL and freight hauling to the valley has continued based on a guaranteed amount of use by the local businesses.
The county subsequently applied to the state’s Essential Freight Loan Program for the funds to repair the track all the way to Darby. MDT rejected the application based upon their attorney’s advice that the county was not eligible for the loan because they are not owners or operators of the rail line. According to state law, only the owners/operators of the line are eligible.
“Ravalli County does not state that it leases the line, operates the line, or derives any specific industrial park-type revenue from the line, except as incidental tax revenue from businesses which may use the line in the county. The County, by itself, without partnering with MRL, is therefore ineligible,” the letter states.
It states that the county could be eligible if MRL signed on as a co-applicant.
MRL officials were initially reluctant even to sign on to the grant request that was submitted to the federal TIGER grant program. Whether they would be willing to sign on to a loan application remains to be seen. No one at the county or the railroad could be reached in time for comment due to the Labor Day holiday.