Cheap gasoline syphons riders from New Mexico commuter train

By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

 

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's distinctive commuter rail line cuts a breathtaking path through Native American tribal lands, past silhouetted mountain ranges and swaths of cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande, ferrying workers between the state's major metropolis of Albuquerque to the seat of state government in Santa Fe.

Fewer and fewer riders are bearing witness to those vistas on the 10th anniversary of the Rail Runner Express, with its double decker coaches and locomotives emblazoned with a red roadrunner.

About 887,000 boarded the Rail Runner in the 12-month period ending in June, down 11 percent from the previous fiscal year.

There were 40 percent more riders in 2010, in the depths of the post-recession economy when the line still was a novelty for day tripping tourists.

Operators of the 97-mile line say relatively cheap gasoline prices have been syphoning away riders. Average New Mexico gasoline prices hovered near $2.15 this week, down from the $2.70-range a year ago and $3.30 the year before that.

Terry Doyle, director of the Rio Metro Regional Transit District that operates the state-owned railway, said more people start boarding the train when prices surpass $2.50 a gallon.

"At the rate that gas prices are, I think what you're looking at right now is the base ridership," he said.

He and state budget analysts said structural changes in the economy may be at play too, including reductions in the state and federal workforces.

"If you really track job losses in central New Mexico in sectors that were kind of our bread and butter, it's pretty staggering on the federal- and state-job side." he said. "I don't think we've got an industry that has replaced it at the level we've lost."

The Rail Runner stops at three Native American pueblos and extends south to Belen. On a weekday afternoon at Santa Fe's South Capital railroad platform, set within a cluster of state office buildings and near the New Mexico School for the Deaf, commuters expressed gratitude and devotion toward the Rail Runner, with some grumbling about the occasional late train.

Hospital emissions specialist Veronica Max, 49, says the train carries her 50 miles each way from Albuquerque to a job she loves in Santa Fe — a job that might not otherwise make economic sense. Her monthly pass costs $110.

"I could spend that easily in a week-and-a-half on gas and the wear-and-tear on my car" if I drove to work, she said.

The state's foray into mass public transit comes at a price that ticket sales don't begin to cover.

Fares bring in about $2.4 million each year, just a fraction of the annual $26 million operating and maintenance budget. The lion's share comes from gross receipts taxes collected across a four-county area and federal funds.

Meanwhile, the state spends about $28 million a year to service debts that paid for construction and train equipment, with balloon payments of roughly $110 million due in 2025 and 2026.

Rail Runner critics contend that cities along the line don't have the population density to justify the expense of the service, but talk of a sale or shutdown have subsided as metro station locations attract public and private investment.

"It's just not the same as eastern cities and states that have millions of people who want to go somewhere but don't want to drive," said state Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, who favors greater marketing of the train to tourists.

A 2015 study commissioned by the Legislature looked at the consequences of a shutdown or sale with a bus service substitute. It showed those options to be costly or futile.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democratic chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee that drafts the state budget, said a sale is highly unlikely because of debt obligations and operational costs. Turning back now, he said, would jeopardize rights of way across tribal lands that might never be restored.

University of New Mexico civil engineering professor Gregory Rowangould said the train's value as a public investment hinges on the avoided investments of road and highway upkeep and expansion, along with less tangible factors such as reductions in traffic accidents and air pollution.

"What I think a lot of people fail to realize is the cost of a highway project to build that same capacity would also be extremely expensive and would also have long-term carrying costs," he said.

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