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Streetcar Plan Still Kicking

By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
       Plans for modern rail in Albuquerque aren't dead just yet.
    Mayor Martin Chávez, still pushing for a streetcar system, is broaching the idea of a scaled-down project that would connect Downtown, the university area and the airport.
    It would cost about $130 million — far less than the broader, $270 million system scrapped 2 1/2 years ago.
    Even at a reduced price, the council may not be willing to climb aboard. Several city councilors, even those inclined to support the project, are skeptical about moving forward anytime soon.
    A proposal to be considered next month, in fact, could limit the mayor's flexibility to pursue the project.
    "Unless somebody drops $300 million on us, it's going to go to the voters some day," City Council President Isaac Benton said in an interview. But "I don't see any immediate movement on it."
    Chávez said cities across the country are launching rail projects. He predicted Albuquerque will join them, even if it doesn't happen while he's in office.
    "There's no question it's in Albuquerque's future," Chávez said. "The question is when."
    Ed Adams, the top executive under the mayor, brought up the $130 million proposal this month in a discussion with Gov. Bill Richardson and state lawmakers. They were weighing what projects could get funding through the national economic stimulus package.
    Chávez said there's federal money available for streetcar projects, and he's met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about it in person.
    The latest version of the streetcar is aimed at taking advantage of the Rail Runner train station Downtown, near First and Central SW. The streetcar would run along Central Avenue, then by Isotopes Park on its way to the airport.
    Adams said the project would help tourists get around the Rio Grande Valley without stepping into a car. They could fly in, take the streetcar to Downtown Albuquerque, then ride the Rail Runner to Santa Fe. Or someone from Santa Fe could come down for a ballgame without having to drive.
    "It doesn't get any more intermodal," Chávez said of the airport-train connection.
    City councilors sound skeptical. Debbie O'Malley plans to ask the council next month to outline what steps should come next.
    Her resolution would make it city policy that:
    n No city funds could be spent for any aspect of a rail system, even studying one, without City Council approval.
    n If the city wants to move forward, the first funds should be spent on studying possible routes and completing an economic-impact analysis.
    n No money would be spent on design and construction unless voters approve.
    O'Malley said the route of the system shouldn't be "subject to somebody's whimsy. We're talking about millions of dollars."
    She favors building a Downtown hotel and event-center complex instead — a $400 million project the mayor and council have been considering, too.
    "I just don't think we can move two big projects like this forward," O'Malley said. "We can't afford both."
    Others are tiring of the whole debate.
    Councilor Sally Mayer said her Northeast Heights constituents are "angry that we're even considering it." She said that even if the federal government gave Albuquerque $50 million, that wouldn't pay for two miles of track.
    "This is extraordinarily expensive, and I don't see a need for it," Mayer said.
    Councilor Brad Winter said the city should focus on other transportation needs, such as the reconstruction of the Paseo del Norte and Interstate 25 interchange.
    "I don't think we need another study," Winter said of the streetcar. "It ought to be dead."
    Proponents of the streetcar say it would boost economic development along its route. Funding details are unclear. Even if the state or federal governments covered the construction cost, the city or regional transit district would have to find a way to operate the system.
    Adams estimates operational costs at $3 million to $4 million a year. The cost could be offset partially by fare revenue.

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