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Editorial: Rail Runner chugging through millions in taxes

In the not-too-distant future, New Mexicans will have to decide whether the Rail Runner Express – the commuter railroad that connects Belen, Albuquerque and Santa Fe – is worth the millions of dollars it loses annually.

And if it makes sense to spend almost $30 million a year to give fewer than 1 million rides.

Like the vast majority of mass transit systems, the Rail Runner was never expected to make money – or even break even. So the question is not whether it will continue to lose money, but how much money state taxpayers are willing to let it lose before deciding it’s simply too expensive to continue operating.

In debt service alone, the Rail Runner costs the state $28 million to $30 million a year, and those payments will balloon to $110 million in 2025 and in 2026.

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Then there are expenditures, which for fiscal 2017 totaled $46.6 million: $26.3 million for operations and maintenance; $9.1 million for capital improvements; and $11.2 million in carryover for unanticipated expenses.

Those $46.6 million in costs were covered by: $2.4 million in fares; $2 million in Amtrak/BNSF fees; $15.4 million in gross receipts taxes and other local funds; and $26.8 million in federal funds. So without taxpayer subsidies, i.e., revenues from gross receipts taxes and federal subsidies, it would lose tens of millions annually.

What’s almost more concerning is that it’s been losing riders. Since 2013, Rail Runner ridership has declined 23.3 percent, from 1,089,500 boardings in 2013 to 835,561 in just-completed fiscal 2017, according to Rio Metro figures.

Now throw in that the Rio Metro Regional Transit District Board – the 22-member panel of elected officials from local governments in Bernalillo, Sandoval and Valencia counties that runs the Rail Runner Express – is looking for ways to pay for a federally mandated “positive train control” system expected to cost between $50 million and $75 million, according to Rio Metro’s board member handbook.

The system – a one-size-fits-all proposal that fails to recognize the relative risks posed by small railways like Rail Runner vs. the massive systems in the Eastern United States – is designed to automatically slow trains when they reach unsafe speeds and to prevent them from crashing into other trains.

Rio Metro has had more than eight years to comply with the mandate, but the Federal Railroad Administration now says the railway has until the end of next year to get the system installed. The agency also granted Rio Metro only $3.6 million of the $40 million it requested to help pay for the new system. Rio Metro is now considering issuing bonds to fund the safety system and using an extra $4 million it receives in annual federal grants for transit repairs to make the debt payments. Rio Metro officials say details of that approach are still being worked out.

For those who would try to emulate what Gov. Susana Martinez did with her predecessor’s state jet and sell the train, a 2015 study released by the state Transportation Department says that’s just not feasible – its crushing debt and tangle of operating agreements make it unattractive in the extreme. And shutting it down does not shut down the state’s obligation to pay that debt; it just eliminates the operating expenses.

Rail Runner, a pet project of former Gov. Bill Richardson that started running in 2008, has been, and will undoubtedly continue to be, a huge financial drain on taxpayers. Whether the cachet of having a limited commuter and tourist-attractive railway that serves a dwindling number of riders offsets that drain is a question that will soon have to be answered.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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