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Falling ridership hits transit agencies in New Mexico

Rail Runner. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Ridership on New Mexico’s commuter rail line continued to erode last year, dropping 3%, according to the latest figures.

But the Rail Runner Express wasn’t alone in serving fewer passengers.

The main bus systems in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe also saw declining ridership in the last fiscal year.

Cheap gasoline and broader economic changes are potential factors in the trend, officials said.

Diane Gibson, an Albuquerque city councilor and chairwoman of the agency that operates the Rail Runner, said people who live in New Mexico and the West are already inclined to drive their owns cars, and low gas prices provide extra encouragement.

“Our mindset is to buy a car – have our own personal space in a car – and that’s pretty much how we live our lives,” Gibson said. “Once we get out of the habit of taking the Rail Runner or the bus to work or school, it’s more difficult to go back and change our habits.”

The popularity of the Rail Runner has been in decline for some time. Passenger trips have now fallen for nine consecutive years, or roughly 36% overall from their peak of 1.2 million in 2010.

A report issued earlier this year by New Mexico legislative analysts cited long travel times, the frequency of service and the limited schedule as factors in why more people don’t ride the train.

Terry Doyle, director of the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which operates the Rail Runner, said broad economic changes have also contributed to the decline. The state has added jobs since the Great Recession, he said, but much of the growth is in the service industry, health care and education – fields that don’t always offer the typical 9-to-5 schedule and a predictable commute.

“The jobs we’re getting back aren’t the same jobs that we lost,” Doyle said.

But it’s up to transit systems, he said, to do a better job of serving those people.

Rio Metro’s immediate priority is carrying out a $60 million series of safety upgrades required by the federal government.

Some of those changes might eventually make the train more attractive to riders. It’s years away, Doyle said, but the new safety technology could allow the trains to run closer together on the tracks, opening up new options for express services that reduce travel times.

Rio Metro also plans to improve the train’s wifi service within the next 18 months to two years.

Once the wireless service is running smoothly, Doyle said, his agency may ask the state to allow its employees to count some of their travel time for work – because the passengers could send and receive emails and handle similar tasks.

The Rail Runner may also try other strategies to encourage state workers to take the train, such as asking state agencies to allow more employees to work on flex schedules.

The 97-mile rail line – stretching from Belen to Santa Fe – is owned by the state but operated by Rio Metro, which is supported by locally imposed gross receipts taxes and federal grants.

The train, in any case, wasn’t the only transit agency to report a ridership decline.

The municipal bus systems in Albuquerque and Santa Fe each reported a 5% drop in riders in the 2019 fiscal year, which ended in June. Las Cruces reported a 3% decline.

In Albuquerque, construction along Central Avenue – the city’s busiest transit corridor – contributed to the decline, officials said. The city has been building a bus rapid transit line that will run largely in its own lane down Central. Service is expected to begin in the winter.

Santa Fe spokeswoman Lilia Chacon said New Mexico’s capital city has seen a steady drop in bus ridership because of a variety of factors – including low fuel prices, the convenience of streaming movie services and food delivery, and changes in the work schedule for some government employees.

But the 5% drop in ridership, she said, might be overstated a bit because of a change in how riders are counted.

One agency bucked the trend.

The regional bus service operating in northern New Mexico reported a 4% increase in total ridership over the last year – propelled by a healthy ski season in Santa Fe, Taos and Red River, spokesman Jim Nagle said.

The North Central Regional Transit District is expecting to launch a new route to Angel Fire later this month.

Some of the district’s routes are free.

Albuquerque City Councilor Isaac Benton said he expects transit ridership in New Mexico to recover in the long run, especially as more young people opt to use ride-booking services rather than get their own driver’s license.

But low gas prices, he said, are “without question” a factor in the short-term ridership trends.

“Transit has been a tough sell in New Mexico because we’re a fairly low-density state with a lot of highways,” Benton said, “but with regard to the generational change, I am optimistic for the future.”

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