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Vote Will Put Commuter Train on Track

By Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writer
    The state Transportation Commission plans to write a $75 million check today to build a new commuter train service linking Belen, Los Lunas, Albuquerque and Bernalillo.
    The money— a slice of the $1.6 billion transportation package approved in a special state legislative session in the fall— would pay for eight new stations, a maintenance yard and the diesel locomotives and passenger cars needed for the 46-mile route through the heart of New Mexico's most populated region. The line would use existing track owned by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.
    It would also pay for an estimated $30 million to $35 million in track and signal work needed to get the service clacking down the rails, said Lawrence Rael, executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments, the agency heading up the project.
    The six-member Transportation Commission is expected to give the final needed vote to authorize the use of the transportation funds during a meeting in Taos today, state Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught said Thursday.
    "It is a very big milestone for our state," added commission chairman Johnny Cope, a Hobbs businessman.
    Rael said planners, with the vote, hope to start the service in November 2005.
    "I think it's going to change the face of this region," he said.
    Gov. Bill Richardson last summer kicked off plans to start commuter-rail service linking Belen to Bernalillo and Bernalillo to Santa Fe.
    Planners are tackling the Belen-to-Bernalillo leg as their first phase.
    Seven of the eight stops in that first phase have been pinpointed, said Chris Blewett, director of transportation and planning services for the Council of Governments. They are Belen, Los Lunas, South Albuquerque, Downtown Albuquerque's Alvarado Transportation Center, North Albuquerque, Sandia Pueblo and Bernalillo.
    The South Albuquerque stop would likely be near Rio Bravo and would have a shuttle connection to the Albuquerque International Sunport, Rael said. The North Albuquerque stop would be in either the Paseo del Norte or Alameda area.
    Rael said he envisions a system in which express vans or shuttles would ferry train riders between the stations and their workplaces. The city of Albuquerque's transit department has said it will support the plan, he added.
    Blewett said the Council of Governments will begin later this month seeking bids on new passenger cars and is also trying to work out a deal for four to six used diesel locomotives.
    Planners and Richardson were shooting for a summer 2005 start date. Rael said the time involved in building passenger cars is one reason why the service won't begin running until late fall or early winter.
    The Council of Governments estimates that it will cost $8 million to $12 million each year to operate the service. That cost includes the price the council will pay the existing track's owner. Negotiations with Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway are continuing.
    Rael said planners are hoping to secure federal transit money to pay the first three years' operating costs. In the meantime, he said, communities along the route would ask their voters for tax increases to keep the service in operation.
    A bill passed by the Legislature earlier this year allows local voters to boost their gross-receipts taxes by up to one-half of 1 percent to pay for such transit projects.
    During those first three years, "we can develop our ridership and begin to demonstrate to the public, and the local governments, and the state, that this is a valuable transportation alternative," Rael said.
    The second phase of the project could start in late 2007, Rael said. He said the cost to build the commuter service between Bernalillo and Santa Fe is estimated at $150 million to $200 million, and planners are hoping to pay the bulk of that tab with federal funds.
    The $1.6 billion transportation package approved last November is paying for dozens of transportation projects across New Mexico. It allowed the state to issue bonds for the projects, and the bonds are being repaid with certain fee and tax increases and federal highway dollars.
    "This is going to set the stage for us to have commuter rail service," Faught said of the $75 million.
    "We've been talking about it. Now the money is going to be there to be able to do it."