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Sen.: Rail Squeezes Roads Funding

By Jeff Jones
Journal Politics Writer
    SANTA FE— The $393 million New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter train project is costing more in state money than promised, is draining money from other road projects and lacks vital planning, one state senator said Friday.
    The state "maybe just got ripped— it just depends how you look at it," Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, told the Legislative Finance Committee.
    "Nobody expected it to be this much," Jennings, a committee member, said after the meeting. "We're all surprised."
    State Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught has said she never meant to mislead legislators about the price tag for Gov. Bill Richardson's train project, which is set to begin service between Belen and Bernalillo in the next few months.
    A $1.6 billion state transportation package— called Richardson's Investment Partnership, or GRIP— is paying for most of the train project. But GRIP also funds dozens of road-construction projects around New Mexico, and is expected to come up nearly $160 million short. Faught attributes the shortfall to increasing construction costs.
    Nonetheless, Faught again vowed before the finance committee Friday that all of the GRIP projects will get built. She plans to use more than $150 million in federal transportation funds to cover the gap.
    But Jennings said the federal dollars that will be used to shore up GRIP could instead have been used to build other roads around the state.
    "It looks to me like there's not going to be any money left for (some other projects)," Jennings said.
    Jennings also said legislators have not seen estimates on how many people will be riding the Rail Runner, which planners hope to link to Santa Fe in 2008.
    "We're already committed. We've already bought it," Jennings said. "That's a hell of a way to run something ... I guess I'm the only one who believes in planning before we do something."
    Faught, in an interview with the Journal on Thursday, estimated that the train project, first announced by Richardson in 2003, will need about $318 million in state transportation money.
    That money is to come from the $1.6 billion GRIP package approved by the Legislature in 2003.
    Although the GRIP package does not list a price tag for each of the many projects it is to pay for, lawmakers in November 2003 were told that the project involving the rail service would take an estimated $122.5 million in GRIP money.
    Faught said in the interview that she always has been upfront with lawmakers about the overall price tag of the project.
    But analysts from the finance committee said this week that Faught, for at least the past year, did not inform the committee that the new tab from GRIP was nearly $200 million more than the initial estimate.
    Jennings and fellow committee member Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque, said they didn't know the train was to cost that much in state money.
    "I used to think I was really good at finance and numbers," Carraro told Faught while grilling train planners during the finance committee session Friday.
    "It just doesn't seem to add up to me," Carraro added. "But certainly, it must add up to the Department of Transportation."
    Carraro and Jennings were the only two finance committee members to criticize Faught over the train finance issue on Friday.
    Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said the $318 million state price tag for the Rail Runner did not come as a surprise to him.
    Faught has said the only two sources of funding for the Rail Runner are GRIP money and federal transit-project dollars, which are now anticipated at $75 million. That federal transit money and the $318 million from GRIP add up to the total, current price estimate of $393 million.
    "Where else would you get money to do a train, besides GRIP?" Faught asked in an interview after Friday's meeting.
    According to written minutes from a July 2004 finance committee hearing, a senior committee analyst working on the train project told the committee at that hearing that only $130 million in GRIP money could be used for the Rail Runner.
    According to written minutes from another committee hearing earlier that year, a brief discussion took place about a supposed "governor's directive" to find $300 million in GRIP money to build the train.
    Faught on Friday said Richardson never ordered train planners to take money from other GRIP projects to get the train project done.

E-MAIL writer Jeff Jones