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Talking the Rail Runner

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Senator poses good question but misses the point

By Harold Morgan

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, poses a good question about the New Mexico Rail Runner Express with his Senate Bill 247.
But like nearly all Democrats and a good many Republicans, he missed the point. He only asks who should pay for the Rail Runner’s losses, all New Mexicans or just some, not whether it should continue.
The bill provides “a dedicated funding source for the operation and maintenance costs of heavy rail mass transit systems that fairly imposes these costs on the locales and persons that are primarily served.”
Government has things to do. But what things? At what level of government? Is there benefit to people supposedly served by the government activity?
At a long ago legislative grilling of Alex Mercure, then Secretary of the Commerce and Industry Department, a legislator from the northeast, admitting he was being parochial, asked what Mercure was going to do for the legislator and his district. Mercure dissembled. The hearing moved to other matters.
Maybe state government could do something for the economy in that area, I thought. Cattle growing and carbon dioxide drilling were the big economic activities. Perhaps a bridge needed replacement, a bridge that county government couldn’t afford, a bridge that would expedite delivery of cattle to market, and therefore improve productivity and grow the economy of the county and, ultimately, the state.
Mass transit, which the Rail Runner purports to be, has long been a money-losing government function.
Whether mass transit is a legitimate government function could be debatable if one referenced the almost quaint-sounding ideas Sen. Barry Goldwater expressed in “The Conscience of a Conservative.”
“The legitimate functions of government are… maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods—the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits,” Goldwater wrote.  
The book appeared in 1960, before Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
My view sees the Rail Runner as an extension of Bill Richardson’s ego, an imposition by those who hate freedom of mobility, and a victory for railroad coolness.
Well, railroads are cool. But pleasant first thing in the morning on the Santa Fe commute, not necessarily. I’m told that the seats face each other, rather than having the passengers look in the same direction. An hour-long view of a stranger starting at 7 a.m. is an ugly proposition made worse if the stranger wants to talk.
Muñoz is no stranger to trains. He’s from Gallup, which was established because of the railroad. I presume he knows the difference between successful trains (serving customers, making money) and unsuccessful trains.
Rail Runner’s “successes” are negatives—dropping passenger count, operating losses and huge debt service. Muñoz has a point. He missed the points about whether the railroad is an appropriate government function (maybe) and whether it works (clearly not). But the solution isn’t more taxes; it’s to cut the losses and shut down the railroad.
Another state government function outside the Goldwater prescription—the Museum of New Mexico—contrasts sharply. A system of museums, really, including the Palace of the Governors, begun in 1909, it is “the largest state museum system in the nation,” Veronica Gonzales, secretary of the Department of Cultural Affairs, reminded us recently. The museums more than work – together they are a crown jewel of the state.
Even Gary Johnson, as governor the champion government limiter, took about five minutes to bless a big expansion to accommodate a large donation of textiles.  The museums are not perfect. Attendance is down. Researching this column, I found a new example of bizarre politically correct mission creep.  Such things can be fixed. But not the Rail Runner.
Harry Morgan
New Mexico News Service