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Slumping ridership dogs Rail Runner

Ridership on the Rail Runner Express dropped 11 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Above, a Rail Runner train stops at the Downtown Albuquerque station Wednesday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Ridership on the Rail Runner Express dropped 11 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Above, a Rail Runner train stops at the Downtown Albuquerque station Wednesday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – Ridership continues to dwindle for New Mexico’s distinctive commuter rail line, the Rail Runner, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

About 887,000 boarded the Rail Runner in the 12-month period that ended on June 30, down 11 percent from the previous fiscal year.

There were 40 percent more riders in 2010, in the depths of the post-recession economy when the line still was a novelty for day-tripping tourists.

Operators of the 97-mile line say low gasoline prices have been siphoning away riders. Average New Mexico gasoline prices were around $2.15 this week, down from the $2.70 range a year ago and $3.30 the year before that.

Terry Doyle, director of the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which operates the state-owned railway, said more people ride the train when prices surpass $2.50 a gallon.

RailRunnerRidership“At the rate that gas prices are, I think what you’re looking at right now is the base ridership,” he said.

He and state budget analysts said structural changes in the economy may be at play, too, including reductions in the state and federal workforces.

“If you really track job losses in central New Mexico in sectors that were kind of our bread and butter, it’s pretty staggering on the federal- and state-job side,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve got an industry that has replaced it at the level we’ve lost.”

The state’s foray into mass public transit comes at a price that ticket sales don’t begin to cover.

Fares bring in about $2.4 million each year, just a fraction of the annual $26 million operating and maintenance budget. The lion’s share comes from gross receipts taxes collected across a four-county area and federal funds.

Meanwhile, the state spends about $28 million a year to service debts that paid for construction and train equipment, with balloon payments of roughly $110 million due in 2025 and 2026.

The Rail Runner, with its locomotives and double-decker coaches emblazoned with a red roadrunner, stops at three Native American pueblos and extends south to Belen. It takes from an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes to travel from Downtown Albuquerque to the state Capitol in Santa Fe.

On a weekday afternoon at Santa Fe’s South Capitol railroad platform, set within a cluster of state office buildings and near the New Mexico School for the Deaf, commuters expressed gratitude and devotion toward the Rail Runner, with some grumbling about the occasional late train.

Hospital emissions specialist Veronica Max, 49, said the train carries her 50 miles each way from Albuquerque to a job she loves in Santa Fe – a job that might not otherwise make economic sense. Her monthly pass costs $110.

“I could spend that easily in a week and a half on gas and the wear and tear on my car” if she drove to work, she said.

Rail Runner critics contend that cities along the line don’t have the population density to justify the expense of the service, but talk of a sale or shutdown have subsided as metro station locations attract public and private investment.

A 2015 study commissioned by the Legislature looked at the consequences of a shutdown or sale with a bus service substitute. It showed those options to be costly or futile.

The Rail Runner takes from an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes to travel from Downtown Albuquerque to the state Capitol in Santa Fe. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The Rail Runner takes from an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes to travel from Downtown Albuquerque to the state Capitol in Santa Fe. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democratic chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, which drafts the state budget, said a sale is unlikely because of debt obligations and operational costs. Turning back now, he said, would jeopardize rights-of-way across tribal lands that might never be restored.

University of New Mexico civil engineering professor Gregory Rowangould said the train’s value as a public investment hinges on the avoided investments of road and highway upkeep and expansion, along with less tangible factors such as reductions in traffic accidents and air pollution.

“What I think a lot of people fail to realize is the cost of a highway project to build that same capacity would also be extremely expensive and would also have long-term carrying costs,” he said.

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