June 4, 2015

Onboard with the Rail Runner? | two views by Rey Garduño & Paul Gessing

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EDITOR’S NOTE: What do you think about the efficacy of New Mexico’s Rail Runner train system? Some love it, some hate it, almost everyone has an opinion. Below, you’ll find two strong, conflicting views about the rail service. First, an opinion editorial from ABQ City Councilor Rey Garduño on why he thinks the rail system is “an invaluable service” for New Mexicans. Second, a direct response from Paul Gessing of the Rio Grande Foundation who thinks Garduño is “just wrong on the Rail Runner.”

[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]REY GARDUÑO is an ABQ City Councilor and the chair of the Rio Metro Regional Transit District Board.[/box]

Rail Runner provides an invaluable service

In light of the Albuquerque Journal’s recent criticism of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, it’s only fair to remind the public of the many benefits the train and its integrated transit systems bring to central New Mexico.

Ample evidence exists that a high-quality transit system can make a region more competitive in attracting new workers and businesses. Frequent, convenient and reliable public transit is increasingly seen as a critical component of a high quality of life and is one of the factors that many households and firms consider in determining where to locate.

Employment growth is not occurring at the same pace in central New Mexico as in other regions in the West, including Phoenix and Denver; this likely reflects in part the changing locational preferences of educated workers. Simply put, our region will not be able to win the “war for talent” necessary for economic growth without investing in the kinds of amenities that educated, skilled workers demand, and transit is typically at the top of that list.

While critics continue to argue that the cost is disproportionate to the value, the Rail Runner provides an invaluable service at a cost per passenger mile that is far lower than most of New Mexico’s roads. While the payout of the debt service ($784 million) is an extremely large number, media coverage singles out the Rail Runner as the only transportation project where capital costs are reported in terms of the original capital costs plus the debt service.

During the Johnson administration the state issued over $1.2 billion in bonds to pay for highway construction around the state. Have we ever seen an article on how much any of these projects cost when the debt service is included?

Under the Richardson administration, remaining debt was consolidated and extended and $1.6 billion of new projects were added (including Rail Runner). Again, no articles or discussion about the true cost or benefit of the other $1.2 billion in projects, other than the occasional reference to the $150 million the state is paying annually to retire the debt (the Rail Runner is $29 million of this amount).

So what did we get for this money? Lots of good highway infrastructure including the Big I. However, a large percentage of these dollars were spent on reconstructing rural highways that carry lower volumes than the Rail Runner. In fact, it might surprise some people to know that the Rail Runner carries more passengers than 67 percent of roads in the state highway system.

There is no argument these low volume roads are an important part of the state transportation system and provide needed connectivity across the state. These roads connect rural New Mexico to services and jobs and provide important connections for New Mexico industry.

Likewise, the Rail Runner and its more than 60 bus connections provide access to jobs and services throughout central New Mexico with connections as far north as Taos and as far south as Socorro.

The operating costs for the Rail Runner are funded by four primary sources. Ticket revenues, track usage fees, federal funds and a 1/8 of a percent voter-approved tax for the Rail Runner and increased bus service that was overwhelmingly approved in each of the four counties through which the train travels.

While fare revenues are a smaller percentage than other systems, the system is intentionally priced to provide the taxpayers in the four county area with a fare structure that accounts for the fact that they are already paying for the system through the 1/8 percent tax. The state does not pay any money for the annual operating costs of the Rail Runner.

The Rio Metro Regional Transit District looks forward to continuing to operate the New Mexico Rail Runner Express and has sufficient funding to maintain the current level of service, including maintaining the track territory and rolling stock well into the future.

[box type=”info” style=”rounded”]PAUL GESSING is president of the Rio Grande Foundation, an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.[/box] [box type=”note” style=”rounded”]This piece originally appeared on the Rio Grande Foundation’s website (HERE) and is reproduced here with permission from the author. [/box]

Rey Garduño is just wrong on the Rail Runner

It figures that outgoing Albuquerque City Councilor Rey Garduño is a fan of the Rail Runner. He outlines the supposed reasons for his passenger rail fetish in today’s Albuquerque Journal.

Unfortunately, whenever he discusses specific justifications for the train, he turns to generalities like “Ample evidence exists that a high-quality transit system can make a region more competitive in attracting new workers and businesses.” What evidence? Is transit a cause or an effect? What did the Rail Runner do to boost New Mexico’s economy or that of the Santa Fe/Albuquerque corridor? Of course, he admits that the Rail Runner had no impact in the very next paragraph.

Garduño ultimately embarks upon a series of half-baked arguments as to why roads are MORE subsidized than transit which is silly as the chart from the American Dream Coalition confirms (remember that the Rail Runner is THE MOST HEAVILY SUBSIDIZED transit system in the nation in terms of operating costs (less than 10% fare box ratio) so it is going to be much worse than other commuter rail systems:

TransportSubsidies - Rio Grande Foundation

And lastly, there is the utility of roads vs. transit. Transit is a perk or service, not a necessity. No housing development or business will locate where you ONLY have transit and no roads. You can’t get emergency services from a train. You can’t make deliveries on the Rail Runner. Roads are a necessity. In sparsely-populated New Mexico, transit is an expensive luxury. If the Big I was destroyed tomorrow. It’d have to be rebuilt starting the next day lest the region’s economy fall into a steep decline. If the Rail Runner went out of service for good there would be little to no impact on our economy.

Unfortunately, Garduño who represents a poor and economically-distressed area, seems to believe that using taxpayers dollars for wasteful luxuries is a great idea.

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