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State Tab For N.M. Rail Put at $320M

By Jeff Jones
Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    SANTA FE— The New Mexico Rail Runner Express will need about $320 million in state transportation money, Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught said Thursday.
    At least one lawmaker and legislative analysts say that's about $200 million more in state money for the commuter railroad than they were earlier told.
    Faught says she never meant to mislead legislators about the cost.
    Gov. Bill Richardson's commuter-train service would link Belen, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. With federal money added in, the total cost is now estimated at around $390 million, Faught said in an interview.
    But staff members with the Legislative Finance Committee say Faught, for at least the past year, did not tell the committee that her agency planned to pay nearly $320 million of the train tab with the state transportation funds.
    The committee staffers believed that only about $122 million of those funds would be used for the train.
    "There was never a statement issued to any of us legislators that said ($300-plus) million dollars is going to build a railroad," finance committee member Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque, said Thursday.
    "If the Legislature knew of that ... I think they'd be screaming right now," Carraro said.
    But Faught said "we've always been up-front about the costs."
    Money for the Rail Runner Express is expected to be front and center in questioning today, when Faught appears before the committee at the Capitol.
    Richardson in 2003 unveiled plans for a commuter-rail system. He said the topic had been studied enough over the years and vowed to put the project on a fast track.
    The train plans have indeed clipped along:
  • New locomotives and passenger cars are waiting on the rails;
  • The state recently signed a $75 million deal to buy about 300 miles of track from the BNSF Railway;
  • The Belen-to-Bernalillo portion of the commuter line is slated to start heading down the tracks next year.
        "Step by step, mile by mile, we're moving toward the launch of my commuter service," Richardson said Monday in Albuquerque, during the signing ceremony to purchase the BNSF tracks between Belen and Trinidad, Colo.
        The state Transportation Commission in July 2004 wrote a $75 million check for the Belen-to-Bernalillo portion of the line, using a portion of a $1.6 billion transportation package approved in a special state legislative session in 2003.
        The package— called Governor Richardson's Investment Partnership, or GRIP— is being used to fund a long list of road projects along with the train service, and it does not specify how much money each project will require.
        However, lawmakers were initially told in November 2003 that the project involving the rail service would take an estimated $122.5 million of the GRIP funds.
        Faught said train planners at the time of the initial estimate were just beginning their work and added that estimate did not involve the actual train service at all. Instead, the estimate was reached by calculating the cost to build two additional interstate highway lanes between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
        State planners in a special February 2004 Journal report on the commuter train pegged the cost of building the service at $55 million to $75 million between Belen and Bernalillo and more than $250 million between Bernalillo and Santa Fe.
        Neither figure included the costs of a track lease or purchase. At that time, planners believed they would be leasing the line and included lease costs in their operating-cost estimates, not their construction-cost estimates.
        Faught said her agency knew well over a year ago that it needed to use more than $300 million of GRIP money to pay for the service, supplemented by federal funding that is now anticipated at $75 million.
        Currently, "we show $318 million out of the GRIP," she said, referring to the state money.
        But Gene Moser, a fiscal analyst for the Legislative Finance Committee, said Faught's agency has not told committee legislators of that funding plan in at least the past year.
        "In the past year, she's not said that," Moser said.
        "It never occurred to me that (lawmakers) were thinking it wasn't coming out of the GRIP," Faught said.
        The state recently revealed that the GRIP program is running short on money due to rising transportation-project construction costs. But Faught insists the train-line costs are not the reason for the shortfall.