Gov. Hops a Train for Bernalillo
By Jeff Jones
Fiday, February 13, 2004
Gov. Bill Richardson on Thursday climbed aboard what is billed as one of the largest passenger rail cars in the world, plopped down in a plush seat and made what he hopes is the first in a long and successful run of train commutes linking Albuquerque to its neighbors north and south.
Planners are hoping to start an estimated $55 million to $75 million commuter rail service between Belen and Bernalillo by mid-summer of 2005, while a second— and far more expensive— phase between Bernalillo and Santa Fe is hoped to begin service within four years. Colorado Railcar, which builds rail passenger liners, brought one of its $2.9 million, double-decker cars to New Mexico this week to provide a lavish taste of what a train service would bring.
"We're going to transform the state. And today, we are starting," Richardson said in a news conference at Downtown Albuquerque's Alvarado Transportation Center shortly before the train began rolling its way toward Bernalillo.
Richardson added that "today is a very good example of why we need commuter rail"— the wind in Downtown Albuquerque on Thursday morning was cold as a chilled knife, snow was falling and Interstate 25 between Albuquerque and Santa Fe was slushy and treacherous.
The state Constitution prohibits governors and some other public officials from accepting free train passes or rides "upon terms not open to the general public," a throwback to territorial days when a train trip was a sweet perk for politicos.
But the public also was invited to make Thursday's run. And Richardson's office said that measure kept the governor on the right side of the law.
"It took three lawyers in my office ... ," Richardson said with a Starbucks latte in hand and the smooth clack of the tracks underfoot. But he proclaimed, "it's safe."
Richardson last summer announced plans to build a commuter train service to ultimately link Belen, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and several points in between.
The plan has some serious challenges, among them striking a right-of-way deal with the track owner, the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, and convincing the string of Indian pueblos along the route that such a service would be a good idea.
Richardson and state Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this week and spoke with Congressional members and U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta about securing $25 million in federal money for help in building the Belen-to-Bernalillo leg.
Richardson on Thursday said he didn't get any firm commitments— though he said he wasn't expecting any. He and Faught said their whirlwind trip was encouraging.
A bill that would allow local voters to pass an additional gross-receipts tax to pay operating costs of a commuter rail service was approved by the House on Tuesday in a 56-4 vote. However, it has since stalled in a Senate subcommittee.
Richardson supports the measure.
A long list of leaders from counties and cities along the proposed rail route were at Thursday's news conference and train trip.
The blue-and-white car, on loan from a high-priced, Canadian long-distance rail tour company, had all the bells and whistles— the seat covers were faux leather, the upper-level windows provided an expansive view and waiters with black uniforms swept through with muffins, coffee, quesadillas and fresh fruit kabobs.
Colorado Railcar President Tom Rader said the self-propelled versions of his company's rail cars would be able to climb the 6 percent grade at La Bajada— the hill that for decades has posed a problem for engineers who have wanted to get a northbound train into Santa Fe.
However, Rader said he recommends running his trains on grades no greater than 4 percent. That would require building up at the base of the hill and shaving off at the top of the hill— a pricey proposition.
Picking a route into Santa Fe is something the state Department of Transportation plans to settle on in an analysis now under way.
Hard-core train buffs, including Paul Uhland of Albuquerque, were among those who made Thursday's trip. He said a commuter service is a great idea.
"This is neat to see— finally," Uhland said. "Obviously, since this place is growing, it's a good thing they're getting this service installed now."
Jamie Johnson, another passenger, said he most enjoyed watching people and traffic go by.
"You can actually wave at people— and they wave back at you," he said.
Colorado Railcar's double-decker train car was to remain on display today and Saturday near Downtown Albuquerque. Open houses are from 1 to 6 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at a sidetrack off First Street between Iron and Lead SW. The parking lot is off First just south of Coal.