By Jeff Jones
Sunday, February 8, 2004
Editor’s Note: Gov. Bill Richardson said recently a commuter train linking Belen to Santa Fe was “on the fast track.” In the first of a two-day series, the Journal examines the complexities of starting such a line.
SANTA FE- Seventeen months and counting. If Gov. Bill Richardson, the New Mexico Department of Transportation and other planners aren’t blowing smoke, three decades of studies, idle talk and just plain dreaming could become reality by July 2005.
That’s when state officials hope the first phase of a commuter train system linking Belen, Albuquerque and Santa Fe will finally huff out of a station.
“There is definitely a large-enough market in this region to make this viable,” said Chris Blewett, director of transportation and planning services with the Mid-Region Council of Governments, which is heading up the first phase of the project between Belen and Bernalillo.
The state hopes to start that service the middle of next year, with the Bernalillo to Santa Fe service to begin within four years.
The plan on its face sounds straightforward. After all, most of the track needed for such a service already exists.
But as Blewett, state Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught and others have been discovering, putting a train on the tracks on Richardson’s high-speed timeline is more complex than they first thought.
For starters, the 47-mile stretch of track between Belen and Bernalillo and the 50-mile stretch that heads from Bernalillo around the east side of Santa Fe is owned by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway.
Talks with BNSF are still in the early stages.
In addition, roughly 15 to 20 miles of new track would likely need to be engineered and built to bring the train into Santa Fe. And the Belen stretch will need improvements, such as signals and extra track, to be ready for a commuter train.
Negotiations in other parts of the country to use and improve BNSF track lasted years and in one case cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Best-case scenario? Four to five years,” BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said of starting a service.
Then there’s the string of six Indian pueblos whose land a commuter train would pass through. Faught said the project won’t proceed without their blessing- and the state’s second-largest pueblo has already expressed concerns about more trains rumbling through its land.
“There’s been many railroad-related accidents and deaths due to the (freight) train on our tribal lands,” said Isleta Pueblo First Lt. Gov. Lawrence R. Lucero, whose pueblo is situated between Albuquerque and Belen. “We’ve got the residences that are right up against the tracks.”
Finally, there’s the money issue- namely, how to pay the now-estimated $55 million to $75 million price tag to build the first part of the train service from Belen to Bernalillo and provide millions more to pay its ongoing operating costs.
State officials estimate the cost of the Bernalillo-to-Santa Fe service at $250 million plus.
The train services in Seattle and Dallas answered crucial funding questions years before their first whistles blew.
“There’s a whole lot more to this that what I initially thought,” Faught acknowledged in a recent interview.
However, she and council of governments executive director Lawrence Rael pointed out several major steps planners have already taken.
The state recently applied for millions in federal funding, Faught said. And a bill being considered in the state Legislature would allow local voters to pass an additional gross-receipts tax to pay operating costs of a train service.
Comparing a modest New Mexico startup commuter train’s costs with other services is “apples to oranges” because those services share the line with heavy freight-train traffic and lots of extra funding for track construction was needed, Rael said.
The Belen-to-Bernalillo track carries only a few freight trains each day, said Rael, who added that BNSF appears eager to strike a deal.
“They have been pushing us to get to the table to negotiate,” he said.
The council is also hoping to convince any reluctant Indian pueblos that a quiet, two- or three-car commuter train is a better neighbor than a long freight train and that having commuter stops on their lands could be a potential economic boon, Rael added. He and Blewett met last week with Isleta Gov. Alvino Lucero to begin discussing the matter.
Richardson during a Friday interview with the Journal said he will travel to Washington, D.C., this week to pitch New Mexico’s commuter rail plans to U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta and key members of Congress.
Success with the Belen-to-Bernalillo route could mean more federal funding for the second leg of the project, he said.
“We need it because New Mexico has over-relied on concrete and roads,” Richardson said of his plans.
“We’re going to send a signal- to New Mexicans but also to the federal government and Congress- that we’re serious,” he added. “They are looking for a Western state with a strong commuter-rail commitment to highlight in the future. This is an all-out effort to make New Mexico the leading rail state in the West.”
It’s just before 5 p.m. on a recent weeknight, and Rael drives his aging blue Ford Crown Victoria out of the parking lot of his Downtown Albuquerque offices for an experimental commute to Belen.
The trip takes about 42 minutes, and the going is smooth. But it could easily have taken far longer. A steady line of cars is making the same trip- and the line continues well past 6 p.m.
A minor wreck that munched the front end of a green compact car would have resulted in a nasty snarl on southbound Interstate 25 if the two drivers hadn’t been able to pull onto the shoulder.
In 2000, about 13,000 people commuted from Valencia County into Bernalillo County each day. That number has surely risen and will continue to rise, as many home buyers are drawn to neighboring communities.
Roughly 7,000 people are estimated to make the commute between Albuquerque and Santa Fe each workday.
Paul Lindberg, a DOT engineer working on the project, said there is now roughly a 90-minute rush period when the freeway is saturated between the major cities.
“If anything happens, you end up with those 5-mile queues,” Lindberg said.
Blewett said BNSF estimates that a commuter train will be able to make the trip between Albuquerque’s Alvarado Transportation Center and Belen in about 50 minutes, placing it in the same time frame as a car commute on a day without delays or accidents.
The train’s biggest selling point will be its travel-time reliability, Blewett said- something the Dallas-area service says is also its most popular feature.
“People love what they get when they hop on the train,” said Kathy Waters, director of the Trinity Railway Express, a 34-mile commuter train between Dallas and Fort Worth.
Texans- like New Mexicans- love their cars. But “if you are aggravated constantly by how long it takes you to get to work and how long you sit in traffic, you will be happy to park your car somewhere,” Waters said.
A commuter service will also bring New Mexico other benefits, according to Faught and Rael.
“When businesses want to move to New Mexico, they look at the quality of life. Transportation is a key element of what they look at,” Faught said.
Richardson in August gave $1 million of the state’s federal tax-cut package share to the state Department of Transportation for initial work on a Bernalillo to Santa Fe leg. He also gave another $1 million of that money to the council of governments for work on the Belen to Bernalillo segment.
Starting up a commuter service in several other cities across the United States has taken far longer- and cost much more- than the current Belen to Bernalillo estimates of $55 million to $75 million.
Lonnie Blaydes, who headed up TRE between Dallas and Fort Worth and now works as a consultant for the council of governments, emphasized that no two places are alike. But he said a rough industry estimate for starting up a new service, using existing track, is $5 million to $10 million a mile, including the cost of any track agreements.
“Seven is a good number,” he said.
That would bring the Belen to Bernalillo cost closer to $300 million.
But Rael said a preliminary assessment of the Belen-to-Bernalillo line shows it to be in good shape, though it will need some signals and sidings- sections of parallel track where two trains can pass safely.
Meanwhile, the state estimates the Bernalillo to Santa Fe service to cost $250 million to start. That includes building the new tracks needed into Santa Fe but does not include cost of an agreement to use the existing BNSF tracks, Faught said.
The state in January applied to the Federal Transit Administration in hopes of obtaining $50 million in grant money for construction of the commuter train project, Faught said- $25 million for each leg.
The money could be used to obtain rights to use and improve the track and to purchase trains.
Dozens of other agencies around the country are also vying for FTA money. But Lindberg said New Mexico has one factor working in its favor: It has never asked the FTA for commuter-rail money.
“Our hand has not come out before,” he said. “They look favorably on new initiatives.”
Faught said the remainder of the money could come from a $1.6 billion transportation package the state Legislature approved in a special session that ended Nov. 5.
That package boosted vehicle registration fees and some truck-related taxes. The extra money goes into the state’s Road Fund to help repay bonds issued to pay for 40 projects, including the rail project, listed in the package.
If New Mexico strikes out with the FTA, it could pay the entire construction tab of the Belen-to-Bernalillo service with that money, Faught said.
Current state law allows for the formation of transit authorities but does not allow such authorities to levy taxes, Rael said.
Rep. Gail C. Beam, D-Albuquerque, has introduced a bill that would allow yet-to-be-formed transit authorities to levy up to a half-percent gross receipts tax that could pay for projects including commuter rail.
The new tax would require voter approval.
“We’re never going to get rid of the automobile out here in the West,” Beam said Thursday. But, she added, “we really need to do a lot more in the way of public transportation.”
Rael estimated that operating a Belen-to-Bernalillo commuter train service will cost $8 million to $12 million a year.
Whether it’s for roads or rail, “at the end of the day, citizens are going to pay more taxes. You’ll be paying more because we’re growing,” Rael said.
“The question is, where do you want to put that money?”
A ‘crash effort’
Richardson on Friday called the work on the Belen-to-Bernalillo line a “crash effort” but said he believes the 17-month time frame is doable.
DJ Mitchell, assistant vice president of passenger operations for BNSF, said last month that starting up a system between Belen and Bernalillo will be less complex from the railroad’s perspective than in any other area it has worked.
However, he bristled when asked about time frames and costs.
“I just never guess any more,” he said.