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Cost Overruns Could Halt Rail Runner Extension

By Trip Jennings
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— Faced with rising costs, lawmakers questioned whether brakes should be applied to the Rail Runner project from Bernalillo to Santa Fe.
    "It seems heavy-handed to ram this through when we have these open-ended funding issues," Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, said Wednesday during a Legislative Finance Committee hearing on transportation costs.
    Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught had just told the group that an additional $6 million to $7 million is needed for the Rail Runner to install flashing lights and guard arms at 20 unprotected public and private crossings.
    Lawmakers also were told that the state's two high-profile highway programs— known as GRIP— are short by more than $500 million needed to complete all their projects.
    More than 20 projects in the so-called GRIP I lack enough money to be completed, including one to widen U.S. 491 from Tohatchi to Shiprock. That project alone is about $175 million in the red, according to estimates by the state transportation agency.
    "All the projects have been started," Faught said. "But we will need extra revenue to finish them."
    "Is there any consideration of putting a moratorium on the Rail Runner to Santa Fe?" Beffort asked Faught.
    Construction on that phase of the Rail Runner began last week.
    Rep. Donald Bratton, R-Hobbs, said given that only 2,500 riders use the Rail Runner each day— which now runs from Belen to Bernalillo— the train is highly subsidized by the state and isn't an efficient use of state money.
    Faught said the state already has let a $115 million contract and ordered $35 million in rail cars and locomotives for the Santa Fe phase.
    "A moratorium puts us in a risky situation," Faught said.
    The latest estimate for the Bernalillo-Santa Fe line is $259 million. An estimate published earlier this summer put the cost at $250 million.
    The preliminary costs for the Rail Runner's new crossings on the Belen to Bernalillo portion of the train's route represent an additional expense to a project already estimated to cost more than $400 million.
    The transportation agency came up with the estimates during a study started after two fatal accidents involving the Rail Runner occurred in August and September.
    The estimated cost for the new crossings comes on the heels of the realization that there is no funding identified to pay for Rail Runner operations once federal funding disappears in 2009.
    House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, sided with the transportation secretary in moving ahead with the Rail Runner.
    "The longer we wait, the more the construction will cost," Lujan said. "I think we are doing the right thing. I realize that it is costing a little more than was initially estimated."
    Last week, Gov. Bill Richardson killed an idea long assumed to be the way the state would pay for Rail Runner operations.
    It called for voters in a proposed transit district involving Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Valencia and Sandoval counties to approve or disapprove an eighth of a cent tax to pay for train operations. Richardson nixed the idea, saying he opposed any tax increase to pay for the Rail Runner.
    Critics of the Rail Runner commuter train fear that operating costs will eat into money better used on road construction and maintenance.
    New Mexico, like many states, is struggling with a shortage of transportation funds due to an increased cost of materials and reduced federal funding. Also, historically New Mexico has diverted revenue generated by the transportation department into the state's general fund.
    "Now it's coming back to haunt us," Bratton said.
    One effect is that the state is using money in its traditional highway construction program to pay for GRIP projects, said Española Mayor Joseph Maestas. GRIP consists of two programs, known as Governor Richardson's Investment Partnerships I and II.
    Maestas' town has waited for improvements to U.S. 84/285 from Pojoaque for years.
    But last year the state took $4 million from that project to help pay for projects in the more high-profile GRIP program, Maestas said.
    "That loud sucking sound is moneys in the state program used to fund a lot of the GRIP projects," said Maestas. "Paying for GRIP has just exacerbated the situation in my town. We're trying to build economic development in northern New Mexico, and if you don't have a good transportation system, you can't do that."

E-MAIL writer Trip Jennings