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State Ends Up With 200 Miles of Track It Can't Use

By Colleen Heild
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Investigative Reporter

          Just as state officials grapple with a huge budget shortfall, here comes a multimillion-dollar bill for 200 miles of railroad track the state of New Mexico has no plans to use.
        Records show that the state Transportation Commission voted in August to set aside $2 million in next year's budget for capital improvements along the stretch of train track from Lamy to the Colorado border.
        That's on top of the $5 million the state promised to pay BNSF Railway Co. to purchase that same stretch of track.
        State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Megan Arredondo told the Journal that the additional $2 million would pay for major capital and replacement projects on the route — which is now used only by Amtrak since BNSF discontinued freight service on the stretch.
        "Such projects could include items such as major bridge repair/replacement, signal system component repair/replacement and other equipment," she said.
        Some of the signaling equipment is nearly 100 years old. Just this past summer, heavy rainfall forced Amtrak to stop running its passenger trains on the route while repairs were made.
        A "definitive" funding source for the $2 million has yet to be identified, she said, adding that no general fund revenue would be used. The state general fund has a projected $400 million shortfall next year.
        The agenda for the state Transportation Commission's August meeting said the $2 million would come from the state road fund, which is derived from taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, vehicle registration fees and weight distance taxes paid by truckers.
        That fund is used to repair roads and highways and for state transportation projects and operations. The road fund has also seen a drop in revenue in recent years.
        In addition to capital issues, the state is expecting to pay at least some of the maintenance costs on the 200-mile stretch.
        "As part of the contemplated NMDOT agreements with BNSF and Amtrak, NMDOT will need to maintain the railroad to allow safe train operation at current speeds," Arredondo said.
        The track sale was supposed to occur two years ago as part a 2005 agreement related to the state's Rail Runner train project. But now, Arredondo said, the "purchase is still in pending negotiations."
        State officials haven't said whether any of the $5 million has been paid, but the state is projected to "take ownership" in March, according to one DOT document obtained by the Journal.
        Whether the new administration of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez could or should back out of the deal to save the state money remains to be seen.
        "The governor-elect will review all costs associated with the Rail Runner, especially with regard to making the system more cost-effective," Martinez spokesman Danny Diaz said Friday. "With the large budget deficit we face, we must closely examine all costs and ensure we are providing the most effective and efficient return on investment, and this includes the Rail Runner."
        Both BNSF and DOT officials are vague about reasons for the purchase delay and the nature of the negotiations.
        "Actually, they (DOT officials) are the spokespersons on where we are with the negotiations," said Joe Faust, a BNSF spokesman. "We've made our proposals. It's up to the state right now."
        Back in 2005, DOT officials defended buying the extra track as vital to the goal of creating the Rail Runner Express.
        BNSF wouldn't sell the 99 miles of train track needed for the Belen-to-Santa Fe commuter service without the state also pitching in to buy the additional 200 miles between Lamy and the Colorado border.
        But even before the Rail Runner project was launched, news reports show, the company was considering abandoning its freight service on that northern New Mexico route.
        And that's what eventually happened, about two years after BNSF agreed to sell the line to the state. Now, Amtrak is essentially the sole user of the 200-mile segment for its twice-daily Southwest Chief run.
        No money
        The state paid an estimated $500 million to launch the Rail Runner service. That included money to purchase track from BNSF, which occurred in phases.
        In Phase One, the state agreed to pay BNSF $50 million for 51 miles of track between Belen and Bernalillo. Train service on that stretch began in July 2006.
        In Phase Two, the state paid another $20 million for track between Bernalillo and Santa Fe. That portion of the Rail Runner service started in late 2008.
        The commuter rail project was part of Gov. Bill Richardson's $1.6 billion transportation program approved in a special legislative session in the fall 2003.
        The enabling legislation, however, didn't mention or authorize buying track from Lamy to the Colorado border.
        The bill said only that improvements, including commuter rail, would be made on the "Interstate 25 corridor from Belen to Santa Fe."
        The state originally hoped to lease track from BNSF for the Rail Runner line. But after lengthy negotiations, the Richardson administration agreed to purchase the full 300-mile span of track from Belen to the Colorado border.
        Then-NMDOT Secretary Rhonda Faught wrote a column published in the Journal in December 2005, saying: "We didn't go into the deal with idea of purchasing the extra section of track, but it was a necessary part of the package."
        "The important point," she wrote, " is that if we were to decide not to purchase the line from Lamy to ... Colorado, the cost would still be $75 million. I strongly believe that it is a good investment for the overall success of the commuter rail project and for New Mexico's future."
        At one point, the Richardson administration floated the idea of passenger service to connect Albuquerque with Denver.
        Chris Blewett, director of the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which manages the Rail Runner, said last week his agency was much more involved with the first two track purchases.
        "I know that the DOT's been talking to the Burlington Northern on and off for a while, but I don't know anything (about the current discussions)," he said.
        Would Rail Runner service be extended farther north to make use of the 200 miles of track?
        "There aren't any plans right now to do anything," Blewett said. "The equipment we have is really for what I would call short commuter service, and if you're talking about Albuquerque to Raton ... you probably wouldn't want to spend that kind of time on our equipment."
        Besides, he said, there is no money available for additional service.
        Track problems
        Faught, in her 2005 Journal guest column, said maintenance costs associated with the 200 miles of rail "are revenue-neutral to the taxpayers of New Mexico and will be covered by the BNSF and Amtrak in the form of user fees to run their trains on the track, which is in excellent condition."
        But, by the end of 2007, BNSF had announced its freight trains would no longer be running between Albuquerque and La Junta, Colo.
        Faust, of BNSF, said last week that his company has "very little to no traffic on there" but added that the company is currently responsible for the maintenance of that stretch of track.
        Just this past summer, hail and heavy rain washed out ballast on 300 to 400 feet of the track near Glorieta Pass east of Lamy. BNSF had to improve the integrity of the track before Amtrak train travel resumed.
        That left Amtrak having to bus hundreds of people per day between Raton and Albuquerque.
        Who would pay maintenance costs once the state takes ownership "is part of the negotiation" with the DOT, Faust added.
        BNSF and Amtrak in 2008 paid a total of about $2.5 million to maintain the stretch of track, DOT records show.

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