Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

9-3 Rail Runner project moved too fast

90312 RR audit

SANTA FE – The Rail Runner moved too fast. No, we aren't talking about the state's passenger train moving along at speeds upwards of 200 miles per hour. New Mexico passengers complain about I-25 traffic outrunning them.
According to an Albuquerque Journal report by Colleen Heild, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's Rail Runner project had an overly ambitious timetable that caused numerous bad decisions to be made.
At least that is the conclusion of a year-long audit by the Susana Martinez administration and from all indications it may be reasonably accurate. Martinez has been accused of undermining all the signature projects of the prior administration but this one is undermining itself.
Martinez's team suggests that the timetable for getting the trains running was not developed according to the project needs but to the timetable of Richardson's presidential run. Admittedly some of Richardson's major initiatives did have 2008 completion dates.
One of those initiatives was the SHARE information technology program for getting all state computers working on the same system. That project was derailed in numerous departments well before 2008.
According to experts, other states which had purchased similar hardware, the necessary changeover to the new system required an average of 27 months. Richardson wanted it done in less than half that time.
The spaceport originally had a 2008 completion date. Delays in development of the spacecraft mean delays in spaceport completion are not a problem except that Richardson didn't have as much to talk about on the campaign trail.
Failure of the Legislature to pass a bill limiting the liability of spacecraft suppliers now appears the biggest obstacle to any further successes for the spaceport. Another effort will be made next January but the powerful influence of trial lawyers appears to have that beaten forever.
Several states in competition with Spaceport America already have passed such legislation. Christine Anderson, executive director of our spaceport, says New Mexico already has lost a company to Florida because of our lack of such indemnity coverage.
From space travel back to New Mexico's slow trains on a fast track, Pete Rahn, chairman of the Transportation Commission and secretary of the Transportation Department under former Gov. Gary Johnson, had harsh words for the Rail Runner implementation under Richardson.
The Rail Runner project was spearheaded by the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments and not the state Transportation Department as would normally be the case.
The reason given back in 2003 was that NMRCOG had more transportation planning experience. Possibly another reason was that Gov. Richardson had great faith that NMRCOG executive director Lawrence Rael could finish the project on his timetable.
The project did move with surprising speed. Negotiations with several pueblos along the route were necessary. Normally such negotiations are slow. These proceeded at a breakneck speed as did other land dealings. Sites for stations along the route also proceeded at surprising speed.
Two of those sites evidently were decided upon without adequate deliberation. The Lobo Special Events Platform for fans attending nearby athletic events was last used in December 2009 for the New Mexico Bowl football game.
Many Santa Feans were thrilled about the possibility of attending Lobo football and basketball games. But the trains don't run late enough to get fans back to Santa Fe after games.
The Zia Station in Santa Fe has never been used. The city council was rushed into making a decision and evidently didn't take into account the opposition of neighbors when they discovered the grandiose plans of developers of the small amount of land adjacent to the station.
So New Mexico taxpayers are on the hook for close to $900 million over the next 15 years to pay off bonds and other expenses. It isn't a surprise. We knew that. We were still on a honeymoon with Gov. Richardson and allowed lawmakers to approve a project that paid too much for land and which benefits far too little of the state.


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