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Train ridership continues to fall in New Mexico

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A New Mexico Rail Runner commuter train departs from Santa Fe on Monday. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Ridership on New Mexico’s commuter rail system has tumbled so far during the past decade that legislative analysts now recommend closing or limiting service at one station – in downtown Bernalillo.

At the least, analysts said, the state should avoid opening new stations and focus instead on efforts that would trim travel times and make the Rail Runner Express more competitive with commuting by car.

The legislative report, issued Monday, found that ridership on the train fell last year to its lowest level since service to Santa Fe began about a decade earlier.

Ridership totaled 787,000 trips in fiscal 2018, a 37 percent decrease from its peak of about 1.2 million trips in 2010.

Analysts working for the Legislative Finance Committee recommended that the state focus future funding on core needs – such as upgrading rail track to allow for higher train speeds in rural areas – rather than building new stations.

They suggested, for example, that potential ridership doesn’t appear strong enough to warrant new stations at the Balloon Fiesta Park or the Albuquerque International Sunport. Ridership hasn’t increased even as four new stations have come online over the past nine years, they said.

In fact, analysts said, the state and Rio Metro – the agency that operates the Rail Runner – should “close or limit service” at the downtown Bernalillo station, which is the least-used and just a mile from one of the most-popular stops, at U.S. 550 in Sandoval County.

Analysts also suggested the state encourage dense, mixed-use development around transit stations, if market conditions will support it.

“I’m not certain there’s an easy solution,” Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat and vice chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview.

The immediate priority, he said, should be completing safety improvements required by the federal government. Rio Metro says it has pieced together a $60 million plan to make the upgrades.

No one at Monday’s meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee suggested shutting the train down – an idea that’s surfaced occasionally. A 2015 study said that selling the Rail Runner wasn’t feasible.

But lawmakers didn’t sound optimistic about reversing the drop in ridership.

“I’m not sure anything is going to increase ridership unless we have an increase in population,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants.

Cisneros said ridership levels appear to track gasoline prices. When fuel is cheap, he said, people drive rather than ride.

Legislative analysts said Monday that the Rail Runner’s limited schedule, frequency of service and long travel times are commonly cited as reasons people don’t ride. Core improvements that address those complaints should be a priority, they said.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said it typically takes him about 50 minutes to drive from his home to the Roundhouse – half as long as when he took the train, when accounting for transportation to and from the station.

“Basically, it doubles your commute to the Capitol from your house,” he said.

The train was launched in 2006 under the administration of then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat. It connects Belen, Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

“After strong initial interest, the Rail Runner’s ridership has consistently decreased since 2010,” said Brian Hoffmeister, an analyst for the Legislative Finance Committee.

Fares are low, he said, and the train remains a cost-effective alternative to commuting by car.

But “there just isn’t that much traffic congestion in central New Mexico,” Hoffmeister told lawmakers.

The state built a $1 million stop for University of New Mexico sporting events, he said, but it hasn’t been used since 2011.

Terry Doyle, director of the Rio Metro transit agency, said he will seek state funding this year – largely as a match required to secure federal grants for core improvements to the train system. The requests include about $600,000 to improve the train’s Wi-Fi for passengers and $2.4 million to help upgrade traffic signals to cut travel times between Belen and Santa Fe by eight minutes.

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