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Transit official says city 'in the midst of a transportation revolution'

Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
By Lloyd Jojola
Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Mass transit ridership in the Albuquerque metro area has nearly doubled the past 10 years, topping 12 million last fiscal year.
        The upward trend has been particularly evident since 2005, and transportation officials attribute the climb in large part to the introduction and expansion of the city's Rapid Ride express bus service, the state's Rail Runner Express commuter train system and generally increased interest in using mass transportation.
        "I think we're in the midst of a transportation revolution in the Albuquerque area, and part of it is Rapid Ride and part of it is Rail Runner," ABQ RIDE Director Greg Payne said.
        Fiscal-year statistics compiled by the Mid-Region Council of Governments provides a 10-year snapshot of metro-area mass transit use, which has gone from about 6.4 million passenger boardings in fiscal 1999-2000 to about 12.2 million for the year that ended in June, according to the statistics.
        The figures include passenger boarding statistics for ABQ RIDE, Rail Runner, state Park and Ride and local systems, such as Los Lunas Transit and Sandoval Easy Express.
        Among the findings is a spike in transit use in fiscal 2000-01, the year boardings totaled 8.4 million.
        "That little increase seems to coincide with the reconstruction of the Big I," said Dave Pennella, MRCOG transportation program manager.
        "Then (the numbers) went down," he said. Boardings were about 7.6 million in fiscal 2001-02. "It sort of stayed level — slight increases through 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 — and then you see quite a significant jump in 2005-2006. That coincides with the beginning of Rapid Ride service.
        "And then you see a dramatic rise over the next several years, all the way through the last fiscal year."
        "Obviously," Pennella said, "there are more people interested in taking transit."
        Easier commute
        The upward swing in ridership doesn't surprise Ben Stoops, a medical herbalist who travels between Albuquerque and Santa Fe about three to four times a week on the train.
        "I have the option (of driving), but it's a heck of a lot cheaper to use mass transit," said Stoops, who's used area public transit for about 15 years.
        "With the economy the way it is," he said, "I imagine more people are looking for cheaper alternatives."
        Safety is another factor he cited for using transit, whether to avoid looming winter weather or the "scary, Mad Max"-like commute that exists between the cities.
        Businesswoman Jeanne O'Dean, another train rider who travels between the two cities about once a week, said, "I think definitely as gas prices go up, it just makes sense."
        The Rail Runner Express began service in July 2006. For the fiscal year ending this past June, train boardings were tallied at 1.08 million, according to the statistics.
        "That's ridership of a million in the overall (12.2) million riders in this last fiscal year. But that only represented one half year of service to Santa Fe," Pennella said.
        ABQ RIDE results account for the lion's share of the overall annual totals — such as 10.95 million during the fiscal year ending in June alone. That was a 3.4 percent increase from the prior fiscal year. The numbers include both fixed-route bus and Sun Van service.
        Since the December 2004 inauguration of the Rapid Ride Red Line — the limited-stop, express-bus service that runs between Unser and Uptown mainly on Central — two more Rapid Ride lines have been added. The Red Line route alone has posted year-over-year increases since its inception, according to ABQ RIDE statistics.
        Good timing
        Wallace Toribio is one of those many Rapid Ride passengers, and an ideal example of a regional transit user.
        The Zia Pueblo resident rides the Sandoval Easy Express to the U.S. 550 Rail Runner station and hops onto a train that takes him to Albuquerque, where he catches a city bus to make his way to Central New Mexico Community College.
        "It's convenient for me," the student said, adding that after debarking from the train, finding a standing-room-only Rapid Ride bus isn't unusual these days.
        "I see a lot of people — a lot of new people," Toribio said.
        Payne pointed out that mass transit service expansion, be it bus or rail, came about at an auspicious time.
        "We had some things in the works ... Rapid Ride and Rail Runner, that were unique and different in terms of transportation modes coming on line about the time gas prices were going through the roof," Payne said. "It wasn't planned that way. It just happened to work out that way, and it worked out very well for us."
        Payne said that despite gasoline prices dropping from record high averages, agency ridership has still increased, though "the increase has slowed."
        "We've never said that the goal is to get everyone to sell their car and take the bus or take the train — that's not the goal at all," Payne said. "It's to make sure that people have a wide variety of options, and they have those options.
        "People are making different choices than they have in the past and thinking about transportation a lot differently."

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