Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

9-27 It's Railroad over Spaceport With Public

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Surprise, surprise. By almost a 2-1 margin, New Mexicans said they would prefer to spend $400 million on a railroad than $100 million on a spaceport.
In results that surprised pollster Brian Sanderhoff and undoubtedly many others, 59 percent of New Mexicans said they liked the idea of commuter rail between Belen and Bernalillo, and eventually to Santa Fe, while only 35 percent supported a spaceport in southern New Mexico.
A pleased state Transportation secretary Rhonda Faught said it shows people want to be able to get to work and to cultural events without driving. The people Faught is talking about are those who live in Albuquerque's northern and southern suburbs -- and that's it.
Eventually, the commuter rail will reach Santa Fe, which will benefit many Albuquerque commuters. But as Santa Feans know, that will be many years.
The reason our capital city doesn't already have a railroad is that the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe gave up on Santa Fe and built its tracks to Albuquerque.
That was 1880. In 2006, Santa Fe is just as good at discouraging development as it ever was. We're too precious for such things.
Why would the rest of New Mexico support commuter rail for the Albuquerque metro area? I can't imagine, but I hope Albuquerqueans are properly appreciative of their country cousins.
Maybe it's that people understand railroads and think they might ride this one some day, while a spaceport is too futuristic and out of the question as far as a trip to anywhere is concerned.
Economic Development secretary Rick Homans, who handles the spaceport development, says he had expected many skeptics. "Last year," Homans said, "we had a lot of skeptics in the Legislature, but once they met the players, saw the technology and understood it, in the end, we got near unanimous support."
The results surprise me too. I see much more economic development potential from a spaceport that will bring in space industries and space tourists capable of spending big money while training in New Mexico.
Of course, railroads, we know. A spaceport could be a bust for any number of reasons.
But then, when two geeky-looking college dropouts walked into an Albuquerque bank, one of them wheeling a bicycle, and asked for a $35,000 loan, back in 1978, who would have bet their company with a funny name and an incomprehensible product was destined to grow beyond belief?
Maybe the spaceport is a longshot. But think of how many Albuquerqueans with $35,000 to spare wish they could have run across those two boys on a bicycle back in 1978. And when Richard Branson and Paul Allen (It was his bike.) are involved in a project, it's more than pie in the sky.
Space tourism is getting another boost, with the fourth space tourist visit to the International Space Station. Anousheh Ansari paid $20 million to the Russians to ride a Soyuz rocket for an eight-day visit to space.
The name Ansari might sound familiar. She put together the financing for the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition to get the first space vehicle 65 miles above the earth.
The prize was claimed two years ago by a Burt Rutan vehicle, financed by Paul Allen. As soon as New Mexico's spaceport is ready, yearly X Prize competitions will be held there. Meanwhile they will be hosted at the Las Cruces airport.
NASA fought hard to keep Dennis Tito, the first space tourist from going to the space station on a Russian rocket, claiming that untrained amateurs would be a detriment to the program. After being reminded that it had sent up politicians with little training, NASA finally dropped its objections.
Space scientists claim that sending humans into space is merely for show, anyway, the real science being accomplished by unmanned missions already flying throughout the solar system and beyond.
WED, 9-27-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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