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          Front Page




Train District Speeds Up

By Trip Jennings
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— To the sound of toy train whistles, the New Mexico House passed legislation 56-9 Tuesday to speed up the creation of a rail transit district to operate and help pay for the Rail Runner Express commuter train.
    If the bill clears the Senate and gets Gov. Bill Richardson's signature, voters in Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Sandoval and Valencia counties would be asked this November to approve a local gross receipts tax increase to pay for train operations.
    The tax— about 12.5 cents on every $100 purchase— would raise more than $26 million a year to pay for the train's operations, including rail improvements and safety equipment installation, bill sponsor Rep. Dan Silva, D-Albuquerque, told House colleagues.
    State law already allows Bernalillo, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Valencia counties to create a regional tax district.
    But that scenario would take months, and New Mexico is up against a deadline to find money to pay to operate the Rail Runner. Silva has said his bill would expedite matters.
    The state is expected to lose more than $8 million in federal aid in mid-2009. That money pays the majority of the train's costs as it runs between Belen and Bernalillo.
    The loss of federal aid would come just after the commuter train is scheduled to start running to Santa Fe and when operating costs are projected to rise to $20 million a year.
    Silva told his House colleagues that if voters don't pass the tax, the state of New Mexico would have to look elsewhere— possibly to the state's road fund or general fund— to pay for the train's operations.
    Silva said he didn't know how many riders were expected to ride the Rail Runner when the Santa Fe leg opened. But he said 2,000 to 2,500 riders a day used the Rail Runner between Belen and Albuquerque.
    Under the legislation, a simple majority in the four counties would have to approve the increased tax for it to take effect. That means Bernalillo County, with the most voters, could wield the heaviest influence.
    Under the legislation, the transit district would operate the Rail Runner and be invested with the power of eminent domain— the power to condemn property to acquire rights of way.
    A seven-member board would govern the district and members would include one county commissioner from each of the counties within the district and one elected official each from the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
    The state's lieutenant governor would chair the board.
    House lawmakers approved the legislation after very little debate.
    The House added to the bill legislative oversight of the rail transit district's finances and required the New Mexico Finance Authority to issue bonds. Originally, the bill gave the transit district the authority to issue bonds.
    "It's just a sign that New Mexico is coming of age," House Majority Leader W. Ken Martinez said of the Rail Runner train at the end of debate.