Past Commuter Train Projects Seemed To Get Off Track
By Jeff Jones
Sunday, February 8, 2004
SANTA FE- Before he retired less than two months ago, New Mexico Department of Transportation railroad bureau chief Fred Friedman kept a neat row of reports on a small table near his desk.
The paperwork, some of it packaged in impressive-looking binders, represents study after study on bringing a commuter train service to New Mexico. But to date, all the political talk and work- nine previous studies at a cost of more than $500,000, according to Gov. Bill Richardson- have yet to put a train on the tracks.
The plans have ranged from the pragmatic to the fantastic.
Former Gov. Toney Anaya made a splash in the early 1980s when he proposed a "bullet train" to link cities along the Rio Grande corridor. That plan was widely ridiculed at the time.
A 1985 study done at a cost of $157,000 said such high-speed rail was too expensive to link Albuquerque and Santa Fe but concluded a conventional commuter train was realistic.
Anaya said he submitted a funding plan to the state Legislature, but it was not approved.
The train is "probably the single biggest issue that people today remind me about from my term 20 years (ago) in terms of 'Oh, boy- I wish we had it today,' " Anaya said Friday.
A 1972 study requested by the Legislature toyed with several alternatives from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, including a 310-mph magnetic train to ferry commuters in speedy style.
That report contained flashy terms such as "elevated monorail" and "tracked air-cushion vehicles." But it concluded that the volume of vehicles on Interstate 25 at that time did not justify such transit systems.
A 1991 study gave high praise to a commuter train system. It estimated an electric train service could be built in eight years for $342 million.
That study referred to previous work that claimed such a service would likely be able to cover its operating costs through fare revenues.
The reality is, no commuter system pays for itself- either in this country or anywhere else," Friedman said.
In comparison, highway construction and maintenance is heavily subsidized by federal tax money and state gas-tax money. Airports also receive federal funding.
A draft copy of a 1992 study recommended a tax hike to pay for "rapid rail." Another study later that year gauged public sentiment and cautioned that Indian pueblos along the route were concerned it would bring more noise and disrupt their ceremonial events.
In 1996, the now-inactive Bernalillo County Transportation Development District completed a study on a demonstration commuter train between Belen and Bernalillo.
That study said a one-month, one-train demonstration would cost $875,000, and continuing service for a full year would run about $3.6 million.
The local politicians were all in favor of it- but when you held their feet to the fire (about paying for it), they jumped back," recalls Orville Pratt, an Albuquerque man who chaired the development district at the time.
Pratt said state funding for the district dried up at about the same time the train study came out.
Richardson during an August news conference to announce his rail plans vowed there would be no more studies. However, the state Department of Transportation late last year began work on an "implementation plan" that will provide firm costs, explore funding options and help decide how to best get a train into Santa Fe.
A study is what you do when you've been asked to study," said Paul Lindberg, a DOT engineer working on the project. "An implementation plan is what you do when you've been asked to build it."
Anaya said he believes the train will become a reality.
The thinking has certainly caught up with the issue," he said, adding that Richardson "is very forceful. ... I think he'll find a way to get it done."