Inside the Capitol

Thursday, June 23, 2011

6-27 New Mexicans hoodwinked by the Rail Runner

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- It is now confirmed. New Mexicans were hoodwinked by the Rail Runner.
During former Gov. Bill Richardson's 2003 honeymoon with the Legislature and the people of New Mexico, we were told the Rail Runner was an important economic development tool for all New Mexico.
Richardson's big promise to New Mexicans was that he could use his worldwide contacts and negotiating skills to lead our state into a vibrant economy.
Lawmakers gave him everything he requested -- a spaceport, tax cuts to attract high-paid corporation execs, additional education funding to produce a better workforce and lots of infrastructure for highways and a railroad.
The railroad not only was going to produce economic development, it would boost tourism, improve the environment, save road building expense and increase safety.
Somehow I never could understand how the train was going to help economic development from Belen to Santa Fe, much less in Hobbs and Farmington.
But $385 million was appropriated and the project was completed in record time for this part of New Mexico.
But now the Rail Runner is running into debt. And the solution is to discontinue weekend runs in about a month.. It isn't that the weekend runs aren't increasing in ridership, at least to Santa Fe. And it isn't that there is much of anybody on the weekday trains except during rush hours.
The reason weekend runs are being discontinued, according to the Rio Metro Transit Board, is that the Rail Runner was conceived from the beginning as a commuter train to get state employees to work.
So why weren't New Mexico taxpayers told that from the beginning? If we were told it was for getting state employees to and from work, there would have been calls to take it out of their paychecks.
And it's not as though state employees don't have complaints. It isn't a high speed train. There are many stops. Even at cruising speed, riders watch cars speeding past on nearby I-25. And then there are breakdowns, accidents and dead cows that bring it to lengthy stops. State employees are docked for being late.
A better solution would have been to eliminate mid-day runs. Gov. Susana Martinez says she sees the Rail Runner many times when "there isn't a single human being in it." But the Metro Board said it would have been counter to the original intent that it be a commuter train.
And talk about atrocious timing. The weekend cancellations will occur at the beginning of major tourism events such as Indian Market, Santa Fe Fiesta, and the New Mexico Wine Festival in Bernalillo.
Maybe the biggest "duh" is the beginning of an already scheduled discount ticket offering for infrequent riders. The idea of providing incentives for weekend riders is a good one. Gov. Martinez supports it.
Incentives would be especially good for Sundays when riders are fewer. The state's free Sunday admission for New Mexico residents to its seven Santa Fe museums should be publicized more.
But the Metro Board may not be very interested in getting people out of Albuquerque to spend their money elsewhere. But then there is always the possibility people outside of Albuquerque would like to ride into town to shop there.
The Rio Metro Transit Board would be wise to reconsider its hasty surprise decision. The stated purpose of the June 17 meeting was to juggle the weekday schedule and stops to save money. Instead, on a 6-5 vote it decided on a one-dimensional service.
Many train riders say they would be willing to pay a higher fare to keep the service going. As long as the unwise decision was made to spend $385 million on the infrastructure, we might as well keep it going if it can break even. That's good for a transit system.
A little creative thinking could do the job. Santa Fe already has appropriated funds to establish a visitor center at its railyard.
MON, 6-27-11

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



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