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While it appears to be popular in this political season to take pot shots at the Rail Runner, Mark Mathis in his recent op-ed missed the boat. Mathis claims that the original cost for the Rail Runner project was $122 million with the final cost at “nearly four times this amount.”
The first report to the state in 2004 indicated that the capital costs for the entire project would be about $325 million excluding the cost of purchasing or leasing the track. The project cost came in at $400 million, $325 million for capital and $75 million for the track purchase. The 2004 estimated capital cost held true, despite dramatic increases in fuel, concrete, steel and other material costs over the life of the project.
For the 2010 fiscal year, fares cover about 14 percent of the operating costs. Fees paid by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and Amtrak cover another 7 percent. The voter-approved tax contributes another 54 percent and Federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality funds cover the majority of the balance.
Residents in the four counties in which the Rail Runner travels are already contributing, so keeping fares at an affordable level is not the travesty Mr. Mathis makes it out to be. How many other government programs can claim that the majority of the revenues required to cover operating costs come from a direct voter-approved tax and user fees?
The cost of adding another lane on I-25 between Tramway Boulevard. in Albuquerque and St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe was estimated in 2005 to be about $320 million dollars. The Rail Runner actually runs over twice this distance. I-25 within this stretch is not really the problem from a congestion perspective. The real congestion problems are associated with roadways into the central areas of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Building new multilane facilities into these areas would cost hundreds of millions more. In addition, pushing more traffic into these core areas would only exacerbate parking problems. The future demand for auto travel into the core area of Santa Fe would require an additional 67 acres of parking.
While Mr. Mathis has had the luxury to travel around the world and ride other rail systems that he considers to be “a necessity,” in his professional opinion this region won’t need rail for another 100 years.
Perhaps he should take a look at what is going on in the car loving cities of Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. All of these cities waited too long to invest in rail transportation and are now trying to wedge rail transport into their developed urban areas.
Salt Lake City is building a 100-mile commuter rail system at a cost of $1.6 billion. In 2004 the citizens of the greater Denver area voted to increase their sales tax by one-half percent to build 120 miles of rail. The price tag … $4.3 billion. And Phoenix just opened their $1.6 billion light rail system — also funded via a voter-approved sales tax. Voters in our region passed a one-eighth percent gross receipts tax to fund Rail Runner operations and expanded bus services. That’s 12-cents on a $100 purchase.
There are other compelling reasons to invest in public transportation:
While Mr. Mathis might not have been affected at all when gas prices hit almost $4 a gallon, many working families saw transportation costs skyrocket as a percentage of their household income.
New Mexico’s rapidly aging population — many seniors can’t or won’t drive beyond a certain point in their lives and their numbers are increasing.
Finding affordable housing in the central area of Albuquerque and almost anywhere in Santa Fe is challenging if not impossible for many of the people that work in these communities.
Even in these hard economic times there are ambitious plans and ongoing activities associated with new development around Rail Runner stations.
The Rail Runner has already carried 3.1 million riders over 107.2 million miles. So by all means let’s just get rid of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express.
Let’s not spend that extra 12 cents on a $100 purchase to build a better public transport system. Let’s wait around another 100 years and charge into the future with no plan for public transportation in this region. Let’s wait until even people like Mr. Mathis think it’s a good investment.
Albuquerque City Councilor Isaac Benton, chair of the Rio Metro Board
Chris Blewett, director of the Rio Metro Regional Transit District