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Can this train wreck be salvaged?

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – It’s easy to find a seat on the Rail Runner these days.

Ridership on the rail line connecting Belen, Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell 23 percent over a recent five-year period, according to reports by the Rio Metro Transit District.

chartLow gas prices and reductions in the state workforce are potential factors in the decline, said Augusta Meyers, spokeswoman for Rio Metro, which operates the Rail Runner Express on behalf of the state.

“When (gas prices) hit about $2.70” a gallon, Meyers said, “we see an uptick in ridership. That seems to be the magic number.”

Travel times are also a challenge. Taking the train rather than driving can add 30 minutes to an hour to a daily round trip, depending on traffic and other factors.

Albuquerque’s bus system, meanwhile, has endured a similar ridership drop, about 21 percent over the same five-year period, from the 2013 fiscal year to 2017.

The Rail Runner’s drop in ridership, however, is at odds with commuter rail systems across the country. Their average weekday ridership climbed slightly over a recent five-year period, according to figures maintained by the American Public Transportation Association in Washington, D.C.

The declining ridership in New Mexico has triggered renewed calls from longtime critics to shut down the train. But state lawmakers – pointing to a 2015 study that said selling the Rail Runner wasn’t feasible – sound inclined to leave the train alone for now.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said effective marketing, improved connections to the airport and faster travel times might help boost ridership in New Mexico.

On the other hand, he said, the Legislature isn’t likely to have extra money to help the Rail Runner make improvements.

“The way our finances are at the state, it’s going to have to live with what it’s getting now,” said Sanchez, chairman of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee.

The state is already facing an enormous increase in its tab for the train. Debt service on the Rail Runner is expected to balloon to $110 million in 2025 and 2026, up from about $28 million to $30 million a year now.

Tourist use is up

Rio Metro, not the state, operates the system, largely with the proceeds of a one-eighth of 1 percent gross receipts tax levied in Bernalillo, Sandoval and Valencia counties. Voters approved the tax in 2008.

The Rail Runner pulls into the Sandoval County U.S. 550 station in Bernalillo in February 2016

The Rail Runner pulls into the Sandoval County U.S. 550 station in Bernalillo in February 2016. A gross receipts tax in Sandoval, Bernalillo and Valencia counties goes toward operating expenses. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s expected to raise about $24 million this fiscal year. Half of the money goes to bus and transit services that connect with the Rail Runner, not the train itself.

Meyers said the agency is doing what it can to entice people onto the train, with programs that offer free or reduced-price tickets in some circumstances.

Ridership surveys, she said, suggest the number of people taking the train for tourism and leisure is up, but fewer people are commuting.

The state government’s workforce has fallen about 3 percent over the past five years.

There are also cultural challenges, Meyers said.

“We live in an area where people have love affairs with their pickups and their wide-open spaces,” Meyers said. “The level of congestion here is not serious enough to force them to transit.”

Money is tight for Rio Metro, too. The agency faces a $50 million mandate to install safety equipment designed to prevent high-speed derailments.

Time, convenience

Travel time and convenience are obviously an issue.

The fastest train in the morning – an express that leaves Downtown Albuquerque at 6:22 a.m. – takes 1 hour, 18 minutes to arrive at the south Capitol area in Santa Fe. That compares with a roughly one-hour drive, depending on traffic.

The regular train is slower – taking about 1 hour, 37 minutes, with eight stops between Downtown Albuquerque and the Capitol.

The total commute, of course, would be even longer if someone has to drive to and from the Rail Runner stop in Albuquerque.

A round trip during the week, then, could end up taking about an hour longer than driving, perhaps 90 minutes longer if it takes the commuter 15 minutes in both the morning and evening to drive to the Rail Runner stop and park.

Regardless of the reason, it’s clear fewer people are opting for the train nowadays.

Ridership was close to 1.1 million in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and it fell to about 836,000 in the most recent fiscal year – a drop of 23 percent over a five-year period.

The rail service was launched in 2006, a major initiative of then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who left office at the end of 2010.

Launching the rail service cost close to $500 million to buy track and pay for other infrastructure.

Supporters said the investment would help New Mexico avoid traffic congestion in the Interstate 25 corridor and accommodate population growth in central New Mexico.

Bernalillo County and New Mexico in general have had little population growth in recent years – well below the national average since 2010.

Regular riders

The train certainly seems popular with those who ride it.

On a recent weekday, passengers waiting at the Santa Fe Depot for a 5 p.m. train heading south said they’ve made friends on the train and rely on it to get to work.

Rio Rancho resident Nancy Lemons, who has a human resources job at a hotel, said the price is right. Her monthly pass is $100, she said.

“You can’t beat it,” Lemons said.

Stephanie Gonzales, a private accountant who lives in Las Vegas, N.M., said she takes a combination of buses and the Rail Runner as part of her commute. She no longer has to worry much about snowy weather interfering with her trip.

Instead, she enjoys “the convenience of letting someone else do the driving,” Gonzales said.

Pros and cons

Opponents of the Rail Runner say the decreasing ridership underscores their point: A less costly option – perhaps a commuter bus service – would have been the better choice.

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, an advocacy group that promotes limited government and individual freedom, said the train is also hampered by poor Wi-Fi service and the addition of new stops that have lengthened the travel times.

“Long story short,” he said, “the train never made financial sense and still doesn’t. We remain convinced that the best move is to shut it down immediately. The sad thing is that even with all those subsidies, people don’t want to ride it.”

Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, chairwoman of the Rio Metro board, said she expects Rail Runner ridership to bounce back as the economy improves.

Public transportation is important to economic development efforts, she said, as shown by Amazon’s desire for a strong mass transit system wherever it builds its new headquarters. And, of course, some people already rely on the Rail Runner to get to work, she said.

“Commuter rail ridership is very sensitive to job availability and gas prices,” Hart Stebbins said. “That is true across the country. When we see employment go down and gas prices go down, we see Rail Runner ridership decline as well.”

Declining ridership aside, Sen. Sanchez said he’s not sure the state has any good options.

Selling the commuter train isn’t feasible, according to a 2015 study released by the Transportation Department.

“I just don’t think we thought this thing out very well when it was first proposed,” Sanchez said.

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