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Rail Runner Track Purchase Delayed Again

By Jeff Jones
Journal Politics Writer
    Put away the ribbon and scissors, at least for awhile. The closing date to buy the track for the Rail Runner Express has been pushed back again.
    Transportation officials had hoped to sign the final papers no later than Jan. 31, after a Jan. 10 closing was scrubbed. But Attorney General Patricia Madrid said this week her office is still reviewing the $75 million deal with BNSF Railway.
    Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught said during a Journal interview Thursday that a new closing date could be set for either late February or within a week after Madrid issues her legal opinion.
    In a letter to Faught, the attorney general said her office doesn't have all the necessary documents. Madrid also said she plans to look at the entire deal— not just the portion that Faught said she asked to be reviewed at the insistence of BNSF.
    "I will advise you as the matter progresses," Madrid wrote in Tuesday's letter to Faught, "but (I) can make no commitment at this time as to when our work will be complete or whether I will be able to issue an opinion consistent with your and BNSF's request."
    Specifically, Faught asked Madrid to approve a $50 million escrow fund to indemnify BNSF in the event of claims arising from operation of the Rail Runner. That fund, spelled out in a contract, would be in addition to a $200 million insurance policy the state has agreed to buy for itself and BNSF.
    The delay to purchase the tracks for the Rail Runner means the start of the service— which is expected to begin rolling down the line between Bernalillo and Albuquerque sometime this spring— will also be postponed.
    BNSF is not allowing any work on commuter-train stations in the track right-of-way until the deal is sealed.
    Mid-Region Council of Governments Executive Director Lawrence Rael— whose agency is heading up a portion of the project— said it will take at least two months to build the stations once workers get that access.
    The postponement "just pushes our start date back," Rael said. "We just don't know for how long."
    The first phase of Gov. Bill Richardson's $390-million-plus Rail Runner project is planned to link Belen, Albuquerque and Bernalillo. Service to Santa Fe is scheduled to come on line later.
    The state and BNSF celebrated their pending track-sale deal on Dec. 5, and Faught the following day sent a letter to Madrid asking her to sign off on the legality of the deal.
    Faught in her letter told Madrid that BNSF would accept "a very brief opinion," later adding, "I certainly do not wish to consume your resources with an extensive and detailed review of all the contractual provisions."
    Madrid in her letter to Faught this week indicated her office intends to examine the entire deal, which consists of several separate agreements.
    "Once my staff has completed its work and briefed me, I will make a judgment as to whether the agreements, taken as a whole, are legally enforceable," Madrid wrote.
    Faught said she remains confident Madrid will find the agreement is legal.
    "We feel very confident about that," Faught said.
    Some state lawmakers are asking hard questions about the Rail Runner during the current legislative session in Santa Fe. Faught said in light of those questions, she welcomes Madrid's full analysis.
    "I think it's probably a good thing," she said.

E-MAIL writer Jeff Jones