Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
In the dim daylight of Monday morning, just three people boarded the first southbound Rail Runner Express train of the day from the Zia Station at 5:49 a.m. The sun had yet to crest the Sangre de Cristo Mountains when another six got on the 7:25 a.m. train bound for Albuquerque and beyond, two of them with bicycles.
“I bike here for the exercise,” James Nickerson, who lives nearer to the Santa Fe Depot at the Railyard, said while waiting for the train to arrive at the so-called “kiss-and-ride” Zia Station, which opened more than a year ago after a nearly decadelong wait.
The station, near the busy intersection of Zia Road and St. Francis Drive, is the only one of the 15 Rail Runner stations along the 100-mile route that doesn’t have a parking lot.
Built at a cost of $1 million in 2008, the Zia Station sat idle for nearly a decade until it opened in April last year.
Ridership data provided by Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which operates the commuter train, show that it is one of the least used train stops on the line that runs from Santa Fe to Belen. Still, nearly 1,300 people boarded the train at the Zia Station last month and another 1,200 got off. Only the downtown Bernalillo station, and the Bernalillo County and Isleta stations south of Albuquerque got less use.
Asked about the ridership numbers, a spokeswoman for Rio Metro said the Zia Station is doing better than expected and can serve as an anchor for transit-oriented development nearby. It’s another option for workers who commute into Santa Fe, she said, citing Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center employees as examples.
One statistic where the Zia stop ranks high concerns bicycles.
Thanks to people like Nickerson, and perhaps because there’s no parking lot, it has the biggest percentage of passengers toting two-wheelers. A total of 150 of the 1,283 people who boarded the train at the Zia Station in June – about 11.7 percent of them – had their bikes with them. The next highest rate of passengers boarding the train with bikes was at the Downtown Albuquerque station, where 6.7 percent of them did so.
Nickerson, an avid bicyclist and engineer at Honeywell in Albuquerque, takes the train to the Los Ranchos Journal Center station, then rides his bike the rest of the way to work. At the end of the work day, he catches the 5:17 p.m. northbound train back home to Santa Fe. He has been doing it almost every weekday since 2012.
“I love it. It’s way better than driving,” said Nickerson, who pays $105 for a monthly pass.
Nickerson breaks out his laptop computer when he gets on the train and catches up on emails on his way to work. He generally reads a book on the hourlong trip home, he says.
As Nickerson was getting on the train, Martin Miller was getting off with his bike.
“I used to go to the South Capital station until they opened this one. It’s a little closer,” said Miller, a state Department of Health employee, who commutes to work from his home in Albuquerque.
For him, the commuter train is “super convenient” and allows him to relax. He spends his morning commute reading the news and listening to KUNM. He said the train is usually more crowded on the way home and he’ll often spend time socializing.
“I talk to a lot of people I wouldn’t normally talk to,” he said.
Miller says driving on the interstate has become “too hostile” for his liking.
“There’s a lot of aggressive drivers,” he said.
Riders heading to work
Miller was one of about 13 people who got off the train at the Zia Station at 6:28 a.m. Monday. Five or six of them made a beeline to an awaiting Christus St. Vincent van.
“That is something we invested in as a courtesy to our employees that commute from Albuquerque and Rio Rancho,” said Arturo Delgado, a spokesman for the hospital.
Delgado said the van regularly shuttles employees from the Zia Station to the hospital, its cancer center and the Paisano Building in the Rodeo Business Park, where the hospital has moved much of its administrative operations.
According to Rio Metro, 36 percent of passengers replied “work” when asked in a recent survey their reason for riding the Rail Runner.
Malcolm Potterfield is a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., who is spending the summer performing an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He rides the train just a short distance from the Zia to the South Capital station where he then boards the New Mexico Park & Ride bus to the Atomic City.
Kevin Eckert wasn’t headed to work. He was taking the Rail Runner to Albuquerque to catch a plane back home to Los Angeles after visiting a friend in Santa Fe.
“I’d rather do this than pay for a shuttle,” he said, adding that the shuttle from Santa Fe to the Albuquerque Sunport costs about $35. The normal fare to take the train to Albuquerque, where Rio Metro offers a free bus shuttle to the airport, is $8. The drawback is that Eckert had to leave the Zia station at 7:25 a.m. to catch his 1 p.m. flight, leaving him with a long layover even before he boarded the plane. The next southbound train leaves the Zia Station at 1:14 p.m.
Ridership at the Zia Station, while small, has risen steadily since its opening. What little data there are to compare from year to year show a more than 20 percent increase in ridership.
According to the data, 1,262 people boarded the train at the Zia Station in May, up from 901 during the same month in 2017. June comparisons show 1,283 passengers got on the train at the Zia Station last month, while 1,050 hopped aboard in June of last year.
To date, the best month in terms of ridership was April this year, when 1,409 people boarded the train.
The Rail Runner continues to take shots from critics about its overall costs, totaling $46.6 million in fiscal 2017. Its ridership, which is sensitive to gas prices, fell 23 percent over a recent five-year period, down to 835,561 in the 2017 budget year.
But a recent refinancing of the operation’s $420 million debt helped stave off fears of annual payments ballooning to $110,000 million by 2025. Now, the payments by the state Department of Transportation should peak at $40 million as the debt is paid off by about 2030.
One reason for the delay in opening the Zia Station was that the state asked for a traffic study to be completed at the intersection of Zia Road and St. Francis Drive before the station opened. That study concluded that there would be “no consistent pattern of vehicle delays” due to trains stopping at the Zia Station.
After that, legal issues and the lack of electrical power at the site were among the matters that needed to be worked out before the station could be opened.
Neighbors were worried about the station becoming too popular and attracting too many cars, a main reason there’s no parking lot.
Finally, in 2015, the Santa Fe City Council approved an impact fee credit agreement with Zia Station LLC, which plans a mixed-used development on 20 acres around the station, as part of a public-private partnership.
The credits saved Zia Station LLC $300,000 in fees, but it still cost the company $539,000 for the access road and loop, where train passengers can be dropped off at the station, sidewalks and lighting. Once that was completed, the station got the OK from the state Department of Transportation to open.
Merritt Brown of Zia Station LLC said in a phone interview last week that the company still plans to proceed with the development, but nothing is imminent.
“We have no specific plan or agenda at this point in time,” he said. “We would love to proceed with a mixed-use project, but what is probably going to happen next is to have more engagement with the community. We have opinions about what we would like to do, but we want input from the community before we decide on anything.”
As with the Rail Runner station, potential development at the site has attracted opposition from some nearby residents. Once Brown’s company decides on plans, it will have to go through the land use approval process, which involves Early Neighborhood Notification meetings and Planning Commission approval.
Tentative plans called for a development on both sides of Zia Road west of St. Francis Drive, with residential, office and retail space.
Brown said Zia Station LLC would still like to do those things.
“Retail is struggling, but we would love to have some form of retail. What that exactly is, we really don’t know,” he said. “Obviously, housing would be part of it, and the city is in need of housing right now.”
Residential density would determine how much parking will be required.
“Most of the type of parking we’ve envisioned for the project, a lot would be underground parking,” he said. “If you’re going to do underground parking, you have to get that number up front because you can’t go deeper.”
Brown said that after hearing more from the surrounding neighborhood, Zia Station LLC may have something to take to the Planning Commission in a few months.