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We’ve been railroaded! The New Mexico Rail Runner may be the biggest boondoggle ever dumped on state taxpayers — and that includes people in Los Alamos and every other town 20 or more miles away from I-25 between Belen and Santa Fe. This train is an ill-conceived, unnecessary “mass transit” system that serves a tiny fraction of the state’s population for an obscenely high price. We need to stop this train in its tracks! Moreover, we need to stop politicians from deceiving us with populist nonsense that doesn’t address our pressing transportation fuel needs.
To refresh our collective memory, the Rail Runner is the brain(less) child of Gov. Bill Richardson. The governor was planning his run for the White House in 2008 and, therefore, was busy building his resume as a “green visionary.” Without properly consulting legislators — or, apparently, historical data — Richardson went about buying trains and negotiating deals to purchase track. He sold the Rail Runner as a long-term solution to relieving traffic congestion on I-25 from Belen to Santa Fe. He also told us we’re getting the train for a bargain — only $122 million!
Since those early days of the proposed Rail Runner winding its way through rainbows and leaping unicorns, the governor’s utopian vision has been derailed by a little thing called … reality.
The diesel-fueled rail service (no, it’s not powered by windmills) came in a little over budget — nearly four times what Richardson promised! Some legislators believe it actually cost more than the official number, $475 million.
Then there’s the annual expense of running the train. In 2009, fares generated only $1.9 million out of a $21 million operating budget. That’s right, the fares collected from riders covered only 9 percent of the total cost, making the Rail Runner one of the most heavily taxpayer-subsidized rail lines in the world. Put another way, when a rider plunks down $8 for a round trip from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, taxpayers pick up the rest of the ticket cost — somewhere in the neighborhood of $80!
It may be tempting to laugh at the stupidity of people in Albuquerque and Santa Fe since voters in the train’s corridor actually voted to tax themselves to fund operations. Sorry, taxpayers in Los Alamos are being ripped off as well. For starters, it was state money that bought the train and tracks — $475 million that could have been used to build and maintain roads that actually move large numbers of people.
Secondly, the operational tax isn’t expected to generate even $12 million this year, about $10 million short of the $22 million budget. We’re told fares will bring in $3 million and track rental another $1.5 million.
The other roughly $5.5 million will come in the form of state and federal dollars. Those funds could have been used to fix the roads you drive on.
With the federal government printing money out of thin air and tax revenues continuing to decline in a worsening economy, it’s a certainty that federal transportation dollars are going to shrink. The state’s budget for next year will be another disaster area. Where will money be found to fill the hole left by the Rail Runner? You guessed it; the same place money has already been siphoned from — the general fund. That’s your money.
For those who claim this train is an investment in the state’s future, think again. The Rail Robber will always suck massive amounts of money from taxpayers with very little benefit, because the central New Mexico corridor will not have anywhere near the population base to justify an “essential” commuter system — not in 10 years or 50 or 100.
Okay, so what should we do? The very difficult, yet fiscally sane solution is to stop throwing good money after bad. The system should be shut down and the assets sold off. It would be painful to take the loss in investment, but the alternative is worse. Who wants to throw away another $250 to $300 million over the next decade?
We are rapidly coming to a day when there will not be enough oil to fuel the world. We need to be pursuing real solutions to our transportation needs by investing in such things as infrastructure for natural gas-powered cars.
What we don’t need is a silly train that makes things worse by draining away our tax dollars.
With enough public pressure we can stop the Rail Runner. Please sign our petition at www.StopTheRail
Runner.com. Let’s show Gov. Richardson and state leaders we are sick of our tax dollars being squandered. We’ll save millions every year and send a message to Santa Fe that we will not be railroaded again.
Mark is a Media Consultant and Producer of the forthcoming documentary film