Bill Richardson’s railroad Posted by: McQ
on Saturday, July 14, 2007
The WSJ [$] carries an op-ed today by Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, in which Gessing makes the case that although Bill Richardson, governor of NM, is probably fiscally to the right of the rest of the Democratic presidential front runners, he's hardly a fiscal conservative.
Within the context of that point, Gessing tells us about something which is all too common among many politicians ... funding an attempt to make a square peg fit in a politically correct (environmentally correct, whatever) round hole at the public's expense. In this case it involves a light rail system in the state:
One of his pet projects is the Rail Runner, a commuter train that connects the northern and southern suburbs of Albuquerque and has been beset with financial problems, although its full length has yet to be completed. An anticipated $75 million in federal financing for the project has fallen through, so state residents will have to foot the entire bill.
I got a laugh out of that ... the rent seekers failed. Now they have to pay for their own stuff. Suddenly, it's not quite as attractive (not, as you'll see, that it ever should have been).
To complete the project, 20 miles of track will need to be run through the desert to Santa Fe at a total cost of about $400 million (not a small sum in this state). This for a train that will take an hour and 20 minutes to complete a trip that takes just one hour by car.
One of the obvious reasons for this sort of a project is to take those polluting cars off the road, no? Of course, in order to do that, there has to be an advantage to the commuter to do so. How many are going to take the train in order to extend their commute by 40 minutes a day, not to mention the added time and expense getting from the train station to their job?
Well they say 2,000 ...
Usually, commuter rail is built to take automobiles off of the roads during rush hour. But Santa Fe is a city with just 70,000 residents, and some people wonder: How many cars can this train really replace? While there are isolated pockets of congestion, the problem in New Mexico isn't too many cars but too few overpasses and too many stoplights.
How many stoplights and overpasses would 400 million buy?
Then there's operating expenses:
Mr. Richardson's secretary of transportation, Rhonda Faught, admits that the Rail Runner will need as much as $10 million a year in ongoing subsidies. Meanwhile, ridership lags behind other commuter rail systems. The Rail Runner averages about 2,000 riders a day. The Virginia Railway Express, which ferries commuters in the suburbs of Washington and which cost much less to build due to the use of existing track, has about 14,000 riders a day.
Yeah, because if you really charged the riders what it cost to operate the system, they'd be back in their cars in a flash wouldn't they? So the good taxpaying citizens of NM, most of whom will probably never see the train themselves, get to subsidize the ride of those 2,000 daily (and that's probably an over estimate given such estimates usually are) commuters, forever and ever and ever.
But that's ok, you see, because, well, it's something Bill Richardson wants done whether fiscally sound or effective or not. Sort of reminds me of the bridge to nowhere, doesn't it you? If Richardson thinks boondoggles like this are a good idea in his state, can you imagine him ever having much to say about Congressional earmarks or wasteful federal spending if he became president?
I took a look at the Rail Runner page. It appears the route will be along Rte 25 and it’s current terminus north of Albuquerque is shown at Rte 25 & Rte 550. Google earth ruler says the distance between 550 and the intersection of Rte 559 is 32 miles. Rte 559 is 3 miles south of the Santa Fe airport (west wide of the city) and basically 10 miles short of Downtown Santa Fe. All as the crow flies, naturally.
I didn’t find any web reference to a semblance of a Light Rail infrastucture tap-in like the old Atichson-Topeka-Santa Fe in or near Santa Fe, but of course there might be. But it does seems this 20 mile project is enough to get you to a dry gulch and the people traveling from Albuquerque will be stuck, what, only another $400M+ short of their destination?
I wouldn’t put it past the rent seekers to have hidden escalation clauses by the use of half-built projects.
To preface, I’ve not read anything else about the Rail Runner system besides this article, so I have no grounds to either favor or disfavor the project at all. However, it is a common bit of misdirection to look at a mass transit project as aiming at replacing cars on a freeway. The most common thing LRT will do is replace a highly trafficked existing bus route, usually resulting in more reliable service with a lower long-term cost. This has been a boon in Minneapolis with their Hiawatha LRT, and is the reasoning behind the upcoming Central Corridor line between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. If ridership is poor, it may be a good indicator that that this is not as well-planned as it should have been, or that the line’s incompletion is currently hindering it’s usefulness.
Also, remember that roads run on subsidy too, and you can only fit so many cars in a small area in cities. LRT can often be a boondoggle, but let’s examine the facts fully, first.
Light rail works where it is a viable option to the costs and hassles of driving. And while I’d like to see much more rail transportation, it seems the only realistic option is to cede semi-permanent right-of-way access to the private sector willing to invest capital. Having driven I25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque a number of times, it is doubtful that a private company would sink funds into providing an alternate to driving when the driving is so easy. (why not a light rail between Durango CO and Taos NM?)
It wouldnt have anything to do with the fact that Santa Fe is the Capitol of New Mexico located a mere 60 miles from Albuquerque, the most populated city in the state - and with the big airport.